Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #143: The Last Dragon by Jane Yolen and Rebecca Guay

I can't prove this is the best strategy, but I tend to read a book first and then research it afterward, when I'm trying to figure out what to write here. As you may have noticed, I can be opinionated, so I try to minimize the chance of having strong opinions about something before I read it -- oh sure, it never entirely works, since you have to know something about a book to even want to pick it up, but I think it helps.

So when I tell you that I had a suspicion that The Last Dragon was based on something, I mean exactly that: a suspicion, lurking in my head as I read the book and particularly Neil Gaiman's introduction. The book itself just said that it was a graphic novel, written by Jane Yolen and painted by Rebecca Guay.

Now that I have finished reading it, I can google away. And so I find from Yolen's site that it was based on something: her 1985 story "Dragonfield."

Does that change anything? Well...not really. I don't think I've ever read the original story, and it's not like Last Dragon is set in a wider fantasy universe or anything. This is just one story about one place and one group of people. But if you're a huge Jane Yolen fan, you might know the story -- so think of this as a consumer notice.

Last Dragon is vaguely medieval, in the sense that things seem to have been the same way for a long time. There's no sign of lords or wars or that kind of thing -- it's the usual fantasy medieval world, with only as many details as the story needs. There's an archipelago where dragons used to live, long ago before men came. When men came, they killed all the dragons, of course -- that's what men do.

It's now two hundred years later, and dragons are barely a memory in the town of Meddlesome, far out at the end of those islands. But we the readers know one lost dragon's egg has emerged and hatched, and that there is one dragon, growing and eating, not too far from Meddlesome.

But in that town, there's a herbalist who has three daughters -- a serious, hardworking one; a dreamy, wool-gathering one; and an inspired, driven one. That third daughter, Tansy, is our heroine, as of course she must be -- it's always the youngest child of a matched set.

Eventually the dragon is found and the threat understood, but it takes a while: meeting the dragon is generally equivalent to being eaten by him, so there are only rumors and fear for a while. Meddlesome knows it must slay the dragon, but those skills are long dead. A few young men set off to find a hero, and come back with someone who looks like a hero.

And, eventually, the heroine becomes part of a plan that bears an odd resemblance to the plot of A Bug's Life. (But, again, the original story here was from 1985; much earlier.) And the title is both true and, in the end, not true, when there is no longer a "last dragon."

This is a relatively simple fantasy story, with a dragon that is a destructive force but nothing more. It doesn't talk, like those of Tolkien or Le Guin, doesn't hoard treasure, doesn't have old secrets. It's just a big, destructive animal that's difficult to kill -- but "difficult" is not the same as "impossible." There are moral lessons along the way, but fairly benign and positive ones.

Guay brings a painterly feel to this story -- the cover doesn't well represent her work inside, for whatever inexplicable reason. Her work here is generally realistic, but becomes flatter at times, perhaps for that fairy-tale feel. It's evocative art that grounds the world well -- these are real places and people, and a dragon of flesh and blood and fire.

Last Dragon is a perfectly nice little fantasy story: I didn't love it, but I liked and respected it. It may just be that I have seen far too many stories about dragons for far too many years to be able work up much enthusiasm for this fairly basic version. If you've read much less fantasy yardgoods than I have, it shouldn't bother you.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #142: Bloom County: The Complete Library, Vol. 4: 1987-1987 by Berkeley Breathed

I am reading this series all backwards and sideways, and slowly to boot: I started with Volume Two back in 2011, backed up to Volume One the next year, and took six more years to get to this one, with numbers three and five still waiting. Of course, I did read these strips the old-fashioned way the first time around, once a day in an actual printed newspaper, so maybe that's not a problem.

And any book should stand on its own at least somewhat, right?

Anyway, this is solidly in the middle of Bloom County's run, heading into the back half of the '80s and with the winds of the 1988 election beginning to stir in the background. (Bloom County was always a political strip, somewhat in the oblique Pogo vein -- changing things enough to be deniable, and not directly attacking anyone by name on-panel.)

At this point, I should probably sling in a link and the actual title of what I'm calling "this book" -- so here you go: Bloom County: The Complete Library, Volume Four: 1986-1987.

Berkeley Breathed was never the most restrained or subtle comics-maker; the plotlines here skitter around like some rustic metaphor, with little lasting more than a week. It always felt like Bloom County had big plotlines, but they were smash-bam things, sometimes returning a few times over the course of a month but never sticking around for long.

So this book has the epic Wedding of Opus plot -- parceled out, a week or so at a time, over close to a year -- and, delivered similarly, the sordid history of the band known both as Deathtongue and Billy & the Boingers. Before that, Billy the Cat sent to Russia as part of a spy swap with Cutter John, and then gets back to Bloom County in some random way because he's part of the cast.

It was all very loose and random -- that was the great appeal of Bloom County. It was a strip where anything could happen on a given day, and did a lot of the time. It wasalso  pretty zeitgesit-y along the way, as evidenced by all of the annotations, by either Breathed or some overworked editor at the Library of American Comics, explaining who Edwin Meese and Fawn Hall were and what was the deal with those giant first-generation satellite dishes.

If you were around at the time, it's a fun reminder that crazy isn't limited to one generation (or Presidential administration), even if the media landscape has sped up a lot over the past thirty years. I'm not sure what Bloom County reads like for anyone under the age of about forty, though: I have a sense it might be like Smokey Stover is to all of us now, a manic dive into something that looks thrilling but doesn't correspond at all to the way we view the current world.

But nostalgia publishing projects are for old people like me, anyway, so this one certainly does the job. It's a well-designed and put-together book that showcases a unique strip, with enough context that a new reader isn't completely at sea.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #141: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill

Alan Moore is a deeply self-indulgent writer, always wallowing in his particular obsessions and loves. He gained huge fame for the times his obsessions lined up well with those of a wide audience -- and, of course, for being really good at making compelling stories out of those obsessions.

But the downside of being a writer driven by obsessions is that they can leave you vulnerable to making a major work hinge on something really trite.

For example, the central premise of the three-part third major "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" story, Century, is essentially that everything in the western world went to hell about 1969. To put that another way: the world is now a fallen place, utterly broken from the paradise it was when Alan Moore was younger than sixteen.

Well, duh. Most of us call that growing up. It takes a Baby Boomer to apply mystic, cosmic significance to his personal adolescence.

(A quick consumer note: I read Century as the three individual volumes -- 1910, 1969, and 2009. They're squarebound, and I had them on a shelf, but I'm not totally confident they would count as "books" to most people. The series has since been published as a conventional single volume, though, and that's what I'm linking to.)

Now, admittedly, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has been extraordinarily self-indulgent from the beginning, and that was the point. This is a world stuffed full of Moore's versions of everyone else's characters and ideas, all done his way, so that everything makes sense in his mind. (I said something similar at greater length recently when looking at the LoEG spinoff Nemo Trilogy. And, ten years ago, I was less positive about the second-and-a-half League story, Black Dossier.) Very few fictional worlds develop wikis by third parties to explicate all of the background details, but LoEG demands them: I doubt anyone but Moore actually knows at first-hand what all of his references are, but just reading the story requires that you catch at least a third of them.

That can be entertaining or tedious. Which it is depends partially on the reader's fondness for outbreaks of cryptic crossword clues in the middle of a piece of fiction, and partially on the creators' deftness in weaving those clues in. It also depends, I'd say, substantially on the tone of the story -- the first two League stories were Victorian adventure tales, somewhat modernized but still with the pace and energy of a story told for young and rambunctious boys. Black Dossier replaced that with reams of metafiction, and was vastly less successful.

Century comes about half the way back: it's inherently episodic, since it takes place in three discrete years over the course of a century. But the core of the plot is a relatively straightforward "stop not-Aleister Crowley from midwifing an Antichrist," which is very Boy's Own. (It does make Century oddly resemble a Hellboy story a lot of the time, which can be a bug or a feature.)

But Century has a League focused entirely on the menage surrounding Mina Murray, perhaps because characters invented much later than 1910 are still owned by someone else. And, frankly, Alan Quatermain was always boring, and never more so after being rejuvenated as his own son. Orlando is deliberately shallow and trite, and a little of that goes a long way. That leaves Mina to carry the whole story herself, which is too much pressure for a character Moore wants to use as the 3682nd installment of that trite tale, The Immortal With Ennui.

So Century is one part spot the reference, one part rolling ones eyes at Orlando, one part realizing Alan is on panel but so bland one failed to notice him, and about five parts wondering if Hellboy could just appear and punch the evil magician already. (Oh, and one part Threepenny Opera, often staged as if this was an honest-to-God musical, with Jack the Ripper dancing fronting the whores he hasn't killed yet -- have I mentioned yet how deeply self-indulgent the whole thing is yet? It's deeply self-indulgent.)

Alan Moore has a remarkable mind, full of dazzling ideas and connections that he can sometimes make clear to the rest of us. And Kevin O'Neil is an incredibly simpatico artist for this series, able to draw everything Moore throws at him across the course of a century of history. Century has some remarkable scenes and moments, but they don't quite cohere into anything like a single plot. If you can accept that for the sake of the ideas and connections -- and nearly every fictional character of the 20th century, stuffed in around the edges somewhere -- go for it.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/19/18

Every Monday morning, I post here about new books that I got in the past week. (Some sent by publishers, some that I bought, some from the library, and occasionally some from odder paths.)

This week, I bought three books:

The Commons, a fix-up by Matthew Hughes of stories about his character Guth Bandar. (It's from 2007, I'm chagrined to see -- there are a lot of books I keep thinking I'll get to any day now, when "any day" has stretched to a decade or more.) Hughes is always a lot of fun as a writer; I love his usual tone and style.

My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness by Nagata Kabi is an autobiographical manga volume by and about a young woman with crippling social anxiety. It's been reviewed really well, and I'm not unfamiliar with anxiety myself.

And Paper Girls, Vol. 4 is the newest volume collecting the comics series by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang.

I spent money on all of them, which is at least one indication that I think they're worthwhile. They'll probably show up here again when I read them, and I'll be able to say more then.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #140: GIant Days: Not On The Test Edition Vols. 1 & 2 by John Allison, Lissa Treiman, and Max Sarin

Once upon a time there was a town named Tackleford, somewhere in the bits of England that Americans like me understand only dimly -- not near or part of London at all, not even defined by being near or part of some other UK city we've heard of. Cartoonist John Allison set his webcomic Bobbins there, telling a loose skein of related stories about the people in that fictional town.

Time went on, and Allison reconfigured Bobbins into Scarygoround, to feature longer stories and shift the cast of characters somewhat. One of the major characters of Scarygoround was Esther De Groot, a pale teen and half of one of Scarygoround's great love stories.

But time continued to go on, and Allison set his stories in time. So Scarygoround, in its turn, ended, and, as part of that ending, Esther left the main narrative to go off to Sheffield University -- name changed slightly, I think, to underline it is not exactly the University of Sheffield -- and appeared in three self-published print comics by Allison under the title Giant Days. But Allison's major follow-up project focused on a new, younger generation of Teckleford folks: Bad Machinery, in which six originally-tweens solve somewhat supernatural mysteries and take the piss out of each other.

And time? Yeah, it kept going on. And Allison came back to Esther, and Giant Days, with what was originally planned to be a six-issue miniseries drawn by Lissa Treiman. Today I'm looking at two big hardcovers that reprint the first sixteen issues of that now-ongoing series -- issue 38 has just hit as I write this -- so once again one of Allison's creations has surprised him and us and gone in unexpected new directions. (Which is, obviously, entirely a good thing -- repeated serendipity is something to look for in a creator.)

Treiman left the book after those first six issues, and was replaced first by Max Sarin alone and then Sarin inked by Liz Fleming. Whitney Cogar has provided colors for all of these issues. (And, yes, all of the creators besides Allison are women -- Giant Days is a story about women, something unusual in the boy's club of print comics.) In the way of comics, Giant Days was first collected into paperbacks, with four issues each -- and then, when those were successful, two paperbacks were jammed together along with additional material (so far, one of Allison's self-published Giant Days stories in each, plus variant covers and sketch pages) to make the Giant Days: Not On the Test Edition. Volume One came out last summer and Volume Two in January, with a third big hardcover scheduled for November.

The two books are subtitled with a semester: Fall and Winter. Since actual British universities generally only have Fall and Spring semesters, the titling may be slightly off -- and I'm curious to see how they'll handle the second and third year without being completely confusing. But, since the end of this second book seems to be close to the end of the actual second semester at Sheffield, my current estimate is that with three years of college, two semesters a year, and eight issues per semester-book, Giant Days could potentially run to 48 issues. (If a year has three or four "semesters," that will stretch things out somewhat, obviously.) Since all of Allison's previous projects actually ended, I'd expect Giant Days to run its course and stop as well.

I've already written about all of the pieces re-collected in these two books -- the original paperback volumes one and two and three and four -- as well as writing longish posts about the related Allison projects Scarygoround and Bad Machinery (collections one and two and three and four and five and six and seven), and this post is already quite long, even without actually mentioning anything that happens in these books. But let me explain..no, no, there is too much. Let me sum up.

At Sheffield, Esther (goth, drama magnet) quickly fell in with Susan (studious, sensible) and Daisy (home-schooled, innocent), who live on the same hallway. Male hangers-on comprise Ed Gemmel (quiet, nice, at first infatuated with Esther) and McGraw (good at building things, has a history with Susan). They do the usual young-people-in-college things -- studying, dating, fighting corrupt student administrations, taking tests, attending balls, making films for a contest, obsessing about where to live the next year -- with Allisonian twists on them.

It's good; it's mostly focused on women and their lives and is a great entry-point into the larger John Allison universe, since the quirky supernatural stuff is almost entirely absent. Allison writes great dialogue and sets up naturalistic but silly plots, while first Treiman and then Sarin (and then Sarin + Fleming) give it an expressive, open art style that rhymes with Allison's own work but doesn't try to imitate.

Look: if you read comics about anything like the real world, particularly the parts of the real world that actually have believable women in them, you need to check out Allison. And Giant Days is one of the best, easiest ways to do that. So do it.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #139: Jonah Hex: Shadows West by Joe R. Landsale, Tim Truman, and Sam Glanzman

Time never stops. And so the once-hot revisionist takes on a neglected character get neglected themselves, and re-emerge in a new format for something like an anniversary.

Or, maybe, y'know, Jonah Hex was always a  quirky character, even in the context of Bronze Age western heroes -- already pretty far out on the branch of quirky and unusual -- beloved by a small cult rather than particularly popular at any time.

Well, whatever.

If you're confused, here's the short version of a typically long and convoluted comics history: Jonah Hex was a scarred Western hero in '70s DC comics, jumped into a post-apocalyptic future for the '80s because all the other cool kids were doing it, and has bumped around the fringes of various DC media properties since then, mostly back in Western mode as if Hex never happened. Some of the best stories about him were three mini-series in the '90s, all from the same creative team: written by Western/horror/thriller/Texas novelist Joe R. Lansdale, penciled by Tim (Scout, Grimjack) Truman, and inked by Sam Glanzman.

And, eventually, those three miniseries were all collected together, under the title of the third miniseries: Jonah Hex: Shadows West.

(It can be surprising to realize that miniseries you missed "a few years ago" and still intend to check out is now just shy of twenty. Again, time never stops.)

The first Lansdale/Truman/Glanzman story was Two-Gun Mojo, which started out the "weird West" direction slowly -- Lansdale has an introduction about that story where he points out that he thought Hex already was a character with a lot of supernatural stuff in his stories, but that when he went back to re-read the '70s comics, that had all been in his head. Nearly everything in this tale of a traveling medicine man and his "zombie" freak show could be explained with comic-book rubber science -- it doesn't have to be supernatural. But it could be.

Two-Gun Mojo also immediately showcases just how much chaos and destruction surround Hex: he manages to escape, in the end, but he tends to be the only one who does.  And it's got Truman in the full flower of his mature style, full of little lines going everywhere and loving depictions of every millisecond of violence. (It's a style that can't be easy or quick, which may be why Truman tones it down by the third story, Shadows West.)

In the middle of the book is the quintessential modern Hex story, Riders of the Worm and Such, the one that also almost put a legal kibosh on the series and its creators. You see, Landsale wrote in a pair of evil, creepy brothers named Johnny and Edgar Autumn, and Truman drew them to somewhat resemble the actual Winter brothers. It may have been meant as a weird homage, but the Winters were not pleased, and sued to have the comics suppressed on defamation grounds.

(Pro tip: if you're writing a real person into a story, even under a thin veil, make sure you have their approval if you want to make your fictional version cartoonishly evil. Saves a lot of time and aggravation.)

Riders starts from much the same place as Two-Gun -- Hex is in a jam, with a bounty on his head, trying to get away -- but quickly gets more baroque and clearly supernatural. Lansdale is at his best with the deeply weird, and Truman draws great monsters, which leads to great dialogue and action sequences.

Shadows West, the last of three stories, is shorter than the other two -- only three issues rather than five. It also has that less-obsessively detailed Truman art style, which means Hex's world doesn't feel quite as real or lived-in. It's supernatural almost from the beginning, and the plot is a little more simplistic and obvious -- mostly an extended chase sequence. It's still fun, and still the same kind of story as the first two, but there's just less of it, in a whole lot of ways.

But the whole package is impressive: three big weird Western stories, four hundred pages, with one very distinctive lead character and a wickedly twisted take on the Old West. The world needs more weird comics; buy this one to encourage the world.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #138: I Only Read It for the Cartoons by Richard Gehr

There are of course two schools of thought on New Yorker cartoons. Some people love them and think they're the epitome of wit and humor in the modern era, the product of the clearly top market after a century of increasing sophistication in single-panel cartoons. Others think they're dull and hermetic and stale, reworking the same few cliches over and over again for a self-selected and self-described "elite" audience but not speaking to most of the world or providing much actual humor.

I tend to fall into the first group, myself, but I can see the point of the second. Magazine cartooning used to be a lush, flourishing ecosystem, with junky dumb cartoons and sophisticated witty cartoons and specialized cartoons for housewives and businessmen and kids and midwesterners and fishermen and thousands of others -- but all of those venues either closed up entirely or stopped buying cartoons, leaving us with basically just The New Yorker and Playboy now. So we have cartoons about unhappy married couples in a room snarling at each other and horny men chasing showgirls, when we used to have much more.

Such is life.

Still, the New Yorker has an impressive stable of excellent cartoonists, and I do insist that at their best, they are very funny. Richard Gehr agrees, which is why he interviewed a dozen of those cartoonists for his 2014 book I Only Read It for the Cartoons.

Those twelve cartoonists are: Lee Lorenz, Sam Gross, Roz Chast, George Booth, Edward Koren, Charles Barsotti, Arnie Levin, Victoria Roberts, Gahan Wilson, Jack Ziegler, Zachary Kanin, and then-cartoon editor Robert Mankoff. Each one gets a chapter of 15-20 pages, providing a magazine-profile style career overview and a small sampling of their work, mostly sketches and unpublished cartoons. (Each chapter also leads off with the cartoonist's favorite New Yorker cartoon of their own -- buit this isn't an art book; there are only three or four illustrations for each cartoonist.)

Reading Only Read It For the Cartoons straight through is like reading a dozen New Yorker profiles back-to-back, and cartoonists tend to have a similar shape to their lives as well. It's how I read this book, but I don't recommend it -- spacing things out will keep them from blurring together. Each profile is just fine by itself, but cartoonists are people who sit in a room and think up funny stuff for hours on end, so their lives are not often conventionally exciting.

It's still a fine book, and a good snapshot of the top of the gag-cartooning world in the early 21st century. Sure, that field is much smaller than it used to be, but that doesn't mean it can't still have some exciting peaks. It does, and these are (some of) them.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #137: Twilight by Howard Chaykin and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez

In the late 1980s, DC Comics thought it could reimagine everything. Frank Miller's Dark Knight did it for Batman, Alan Moore handled Swamp Thing, and John Byrne changed Superman. Moore again took on the core idea of a superhero universe in Watchmen. And, to set the tone for all of that, Marv Wolfman (and George Perez) upended the DC Universe entirely a few years earlier with Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Even secondary reimaginings, like Mike Grell's take on Green Arrow and Grant Morrison's on Animal Man and the Doom Patrol, were strong successes. But DC had a very deep bench, full of characters who hadn't seen the light of day in years.

So someone had the crazy idea -- maybe writer Howard Chaykin, maybe some DC functionary -- to radically reimagine DC's minor space-adventure characters, mostly left fallow since the end of the Silver Age, into a major "serious" story and bring them into the then-present day. The idea was approved, and a three-issue miniseries rolled out in 1990, written by Chaykin and drawn by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

It was called Twilight. You've probably never heard of it.

It's not very good. That may be why you've never heard of it.

In common with a lot of Chaykin's work, there is a fascistic blonde using unsubtle Nazi imagery, sexual sadism, and boundless narcissism to conquer everything nearby. Somewhat unusually, this is a man, and it's Tommy Tomorrow, who was originally a hero. My guess is that all of the actual villains of the old DC space comics were so infinitely boring that none of them would be suitable.

Other folks that show up, in more-or-less recognizable form, include Star Hawkins, Space Cabbie, and Manhunter 2070. In the best 1980s fashion, they are all tormented, twisted people -- alcoholics, robot-lovers, robot-haters, fanatics, self-aggrandizing creeps, and general assholes -- as opposed to the sparkling cardboard cutouts they were in the 1950s. This may not be entirely an improvement, but it's definitely a change.

At the core of the story is two-thirds of the cast of the "Star Rovers" stories: Homer Gint is our narrator and fills the usual wisecracking Chaykin hero role. Karel Sorensen breaks from Chaykin tradition by being a blonde who is not evil, and who is transformed into a supposed goddess at the end of the first issue. The third Star Rover, Rick Purvis, appears a little at the beginning to be smarmy and obnoxious, then disappears entirely. The other characters circle the central narrative -- Karel becomes a goddess; Tommy wants to steal her power because he's the usual Chaykin wanna-be dictator -- at what is usually a great distance and to no clear purpose, until the end, when everyone does get to play a role.

Oh, since this is a Chaykin story, there must be a good brunette girl -- it's Brenda Tomorrow, Tommy's estranged wife, who I think was invented entirely for this series. She wanders around the outskirts of the plot as well, but, to be fair, there's a lot of going-nowhere plot to wander around.

Twilight is very talky, and dull in it's talkiness -- these are mostly highly unpleasant people yelling at each other for pages on end or spouting silly technobabble for equally long times. They are also deeply concerned with the ethics and ennui of immortality, which is no more interesting here than it usually is. So Twilight is a slow read. The only upside to that is that it gives the reader more time to savor Garcia-Lopez's very good late-80s art.

I suppose these characters were slightly better known at the time, almost thirty years ago, but they'd still been missing from DC Comics for at least twenty years at that point, and most of them for thirty. So there would not have been much of an audience clamoring for more Star Hawkins stories in the first place -- which I suppose is good, since any such large group would have been appalled by the changes Chaykin rang on the characters.

Frankly, it boggles my mind that anyone thought this was a good idea, on any level. Twilight might be the quintessential '80s comic: a badly fumbled re-imagining that makes a whole bunch of characters that no one cared about darker for no good reason and was published in a fancy format with ludicrously Lynd Ward-esque covers.

(My other possibility for quintessential '80s comic would be Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, which jumped equally hard on an entirely different bandwagon.)