Monday, August 21, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/19

Hey guys! If I had gotten any books in the mail last week, I'd write about them here.

I didn't, so I can't.

This is totally fine, since I'm deep into fiddling around with Mod Organizer, and mildly resent time spent doing anything more constructive. My current hobby/obsession is playing and modding Bethesda games, and there are so many mod managers to learn and play with that I'm currently hugely busy doing absolutely nothing at all useful or meaningful. (Not even playing games, but organizing add-ons to games and fiddling with metadata and settings -- that's the kind of thing I enjoy, for whatever reasons.)

I mean, this will pass, eventually, and maybe the next thing will be a bit more social or constructive -- but this is fine for now.

(If you have no idea at all what I'm talking about in the last two paragraphs -- it's a video-game thing. You're probably better off doing whatever your time-wasting hobby is. Odds are it's more active or at least gets you out into the fresh air every so often.)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/12

I have my limits. I do try to be as honest as possible about the books that come in my mail -- to present them as positively as I can, even when some of them are very much not my kind of book (since you are not me, and may well like different things), and find the right covers and a link or two for more details.

But when even a book's publisher has the wrong cover on their webpage for the book...well, some things I can't fix by myself.

This week I have one book to tell you about: Melanie Rawn's Playing to the Gods. That image over there to the left is not the real cover for it. Oh, the art is correct, and the title and author's name have the right words and are spelled correctly. But the type and design is quite different on the final book -- which I am right now holding in my hand -- and the blurb is both different and at the opposite end of the cover.

Well, the words inside are the same, right? And we all claim not to care about covers, since we're smart rational people who are never affected by marketing -- marketing somehow became a gigantic industry despite the fact that it never once got anyone to do anything. Sure.

Playing to the Gods is the fifth and last in Rawn's "Glass Thorns" series, about a theatrical troupe in an epic-fantasy world. I may be confused, but I believe our heroes do not save the world in this volume, nor have they saved the world in any of the previous books. They've saved themselves, I'm sure, and probably others. This time it looks like they may need to save the kingdom. But I continue to hold out hope that there can be secondary-world fantasies without Dark Lords, and my firm belief is that this series is among that august company. If you also appreciate worlds that do not need to be saved every second Thursday, the first book in this series is Touchstone -- start there.

This is a hardcover from Tor, hitting stores August 29. Go look for it, and you can see the real cover.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Quotes of the Week

One from the beginning, one from the end:

"The smoke alarm went off in the hallway upstairs, either to let us know the battery had just died or because the house was on on fire. We finished our lunch in silence." (p.8)

"'Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don't want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for health, long life.'" (p.304)

Both from White Noise by Don DeLillo


Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

I had a mental image of this book that wasn't really correct. You might have it, too.

The standard blurb for The Road to Wigan Pier goes something like this: "In 1937, the Left Book Club sent jobbing Socialist writer George Orwell to investigate the plight of unemployed miners in the North of England. He wrote movingly about their suffering, and the lives of their families and their fellows who are still working." That's not entirely untrue, but it only partially describes the first half of this short book.

In the first hundred pages of Wigan Pier, Orwell visits a few mines and a few miner's homes, giving us some specific reportorial details. But he spends as much time with statistics and theory, explaining why the miner's lives are so horrible and how only The March Of International Socialism can save them. The second hundred pages see Orwell grappling with the inconvenient problem that Socialism was a third-rate political movement in England in 1937, populated mostly by cranks and monomaniacs and weirdos. (Not "decent normal people," his tedious refrain, with himself as the type specimen.) It also sees him spend several chapters describing in tedious detail his own specific set of class-prejudices, and extrapolating outward to assume he can diagnose the prejudices of all the "decent normal people."

(Note that "people" here, and throughout Wigan Pier, clearly means "men." One of the categories of people who are not "decent normal people" is feminists. One frankly starts to assume "decent normal people" is code for "middle-class Tory men," and wonders if politics were different enough eighty years ago that Orwell actually believed his beloved Socialists had a chance.)

The big problem with a book of political agitprop, of course, is that it dates quickly. And Wigan Pier has had eighty years to date. The central battle of the 20th century did not turn out to be Fascism vs. Socialism: Fascism was burned out in one big war, though periodic smaller outbreaks have occurred since. And, not to be too nitpicky, but it wasn't Socialism that defeated the Axis powers, either. Yes, the ruins of Europe moved in a generally leftward direction after the war, but Orwell was a true believer at this point: by Socialism he meant the whole shebang, with government ownership of everything and all the middle classes having "[sunk] without further struggles into the working class where we belong." He spends a lot of time on the devil's-advocate side of both Socialism and the then-current Depression, and frankly makes them both look dismal and horrible, like the choice between being strangled and beheaded.

Wigan Pier is additionally very clearly a book from before the Western Left realized what Stalin really was; The USSR is barely mentioned, except for Orwell to complain that his stereotyped Socialist cranks spend too much time singing paeans to Five-Year Plans and new tractor factories and the glory of Russian industry. This is not a view of Socialism that includes gulags or the Great Terror, which incidentally had been going on for the past several years at this point but still could be ignored by true believers. Socialism, in Orwell's conception, is the one true ideology which can save mankind from itself, and nothing can be allowed to halt it, and calling it that rather than Communism is primarily a matter of public relations, not of serious differences.

Luckily, he learned better. We all learned better, eventually. But that was all to come, in the years after Wigan Pier. This is a postcard from a vanished time, when Fascism seemed more transnational, and the spectre of an English Fascism standing up, taking over, and working hand-in-hand with Hitler was real and frightening. That fact that wasn't what actually happened doesn't mean it wasn't possible, and it's impossible to ever give real percentages on historical events -- well, until we get the cross-time machine working, and we can do some field research to work up the real numbers.

But, still, the spectre of English Fascism in 1937 is a creaky, anachronistic thing to read a long screed against, and Wigan Pier is more than 50% screed by volume. I can't exactly recommend it to most readers in the early 21st century, in particular anyone who suspects they would not be included in Orwell's phalanx of "decent normal people." But, then, as an American, he wasn't talking to me anyway.

Oh, one last note. There is no pier in Wigan. Orwell says it was torn down years before he got there, and never actually says why the pier would be important to a book about coal miners, or Socialism, or impending class doom. So the title is just as satisfying as the rest of the book.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Hawkeye, Vol. 4: Rio Bravo by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and others

Not to give it all away up front, but I don't think this all adds up to even as much as the sum of its parts. Sure, the Fraction/Aja run on Hawkeye of a few years back was visually stylish, character-focused, and felt more adult than the usual run of superhero comics -- but, at the end of those twenty-two issues, what had actually happened, and what did it mean?

Well, spoiler alert! But the answers to those questions are "two people named Hawkeye punched a lot of people, and broke a bunch of other stuff along the way" and "we got twenty-two superhero comics."

Nothing ends in Rio Bravo. There's a really big fight with the Tracksuit Draculas at the end, which actually leads to some or all of them being bundled off by the police. But let's be honest: the footsoldiers will be bailed out or easily replaced. And the ringleader, as we discovered in this volume, legally owns the damn building. The central lesson of this Hawkeye series is that Clint Barton is a bad person who makes bad choices: he got several people killed, and caused millions of dollars in property damage over a multi-month period, for absolutely no reason. The other tenants in that building will be evicted, eventually, and the big shiny new development will go up. The only real question is how many of them will be killed, injured, or traumatized along the way by Barton playing Avenger with their lives and homes.

You can tell stories about people in spangly costumes punching things, and having that make the world better -- those are classic superhero comics. And you can tell stories about people in moody costumes punching things, and having them just barely keep the world from getting even worse -- those are gritty superhero comics. And you can tell stories about people in regular clothes punching and shooting things, and having that make the world at least marginally better -- those are a kind of crime stories, in comics or out of it.

But if your story is about people who are supposed to be superheroes punching things for twenty-two issues, and they've only made things worse (for those dead innocents, for one), what you have is a mess. The Fraction/Aja Hawkeye is a mess.

Now, it's probably not their mess: corporate comics have to dance to the tune the piper plays, and Marvel in particular has been a very changeable and off-tune piper these last few years. But that doesn't matter to the book: even if it's not their fault, it's an essential flaw in the product we have here. The four volumes of this Hawkeye run are not a story, or even really a collection of stories. They're just pretty vignettes about a few months when Barton pretended to be Robin Hood for a while, and screwed up the lives of a whole bunch of people.

We also get a very dramatic, lots-of-panels-on-the-page scene, in which the assembled silly-looking gangsters of the Marvel Universe solemnly swear that they're going to break with protocol and actually kill someone! (Well, actually kill a superhero, which I gather they don't do normally because ah ahem well actually Comics Code um would you look at that thing behind you!)

This is a stupid scene for several reasons, one of which I've just alluded to: good stories don't call attention to their silly premises. Another reason is that there have been a couple of nearly identical scenes throughout this run, with some subset of the Legion of Silly Villain Hats declaring that This Time, The Hawkeyes Have Gone Too Far, And So This Means War! They've already said they want to kill the Hawkeyes; they've just failed to actually do it.

(Yes, there is one Very Significant Person in this last version. Anyone who didn't realize this Shocking Revelation about this person some time ago is either very innocent or very stupid.)

So, here's the thing: the Fraction/Aja run of Hawkeye had a lot of great issues. Frankly, each one is pretty damn good: tense and taut and full of nifty smart page designs and smart human dialogue. Reading this on a monthly basis would have been really impressive. But it's years later now, and we need to compare the Fraction/Aja run with similar street-level stories that it will sit next to on a bookshelf: the O'Neil/Adams "Hard-Traveling Heroes" run, for example, or Miller/Mazzuchelli on Daredevil: Born Again or Batman: Year One. And Hawkeye falls flat by comparison: it doesn't go anywhere or solve anything. It was just the Hawkeye product in the market for about two years. Yes, it was a better Hawkeye product than it needed to be. But that's only an argument that works during the run: it's pointless afterward.

I don't know if corporate comics now systematically exclude good work with a real shape -- if they are actively hostile to real stories, and not just passively a bad environment for them -- but it doesn't really matter. All you'll get there is pieces, no matter the reason. This book, and the series it was part of, is no exception, despite its real strengths. (And see my reviews of the hardcover of the first two collections and then volume three for more about those strengths.)

Monday, August 07, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/5

This week's crop of mail -- that's a horribly mixed metaphor, but let it go -- brought two books for me to tell you about. And I'll get to that, but, first, I feel the need to explain this thing I do for every Monday morning.

The way Publicity works is this: people who have an audience, in whatever media, get free stuff and/or access to help build awareness and interest for upcoming products of interest to the folks in their audience. In my case, that's you folks, and primarily books. (I do get some music as well, but am much less organized about it.) Thus I get free books in the mail, mostly unexpectedly because I'm semi-deliberately bad at this, and I write about them here every week.

First is The Castle in Cassiopeia, third in the Dead Enders series by Mike Resnick. This is somewhere in the nexus of Military SF and space opera, with a small group of tough military folks who do the impossible jobs -- in fact, this time, they're re-doing a job from the first book, since their fix didn't work out as well as they hoped. It's set somewhere in the middle of Resnick's Birthright timeline, which has been the background for most of his fiction for around forty years -- there are a couple of appendices here with a detailed timeline and notes about the universe. (And I don't need to tell you folks how much I love lists and timelines and background notes!) Cassiopeia is a trade paperback from Pyr, hitting stores on August 22.

Then there's Victor Milan's The Dinosaur Princess, third in his medieval fantasy series with every possible variety of dinosaur substituting for the more usual dragons. (Those who whine about the lack of scientific accuracy in fantasy may be interested in this series -- I'm not clear if there's anything supernatural in it at all; it looks like humans were dumped on a world with dinosaurs through super-science long ago, and now we get fighting and scheming.) This one is a Tor hardcover, and will be in stores on August 15.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Saga Volume Seven by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan

Trust is a tricky thing in stories: you have to trust the person telling the story will do a good job to keep rewarding that person with your attention.

Brian K. Vaughan had my trust and hugely lost it, in his Ex Machina series with artist Tony Harris, and I've been giving each of his projects the side-eye since then, watching to see if the same thing would recur. That's probably not fair, and it might have made my posts on the earlier Saga books -- volumes one, two, three, four, five, and six -- less useful than they could be.

But there's an essential tension in a standalone, ongoing comic book: is this one story, or is it a series of stories? Most comics tell several stories in a row: sometimes simply, with a story in each issue, and sometimes complexly, across dozens of issues of dozens of titles for two months to then abruptly stop and pick back up with the next big crossover. But Spider-Man or JLA or Marvel as a whole is not a story -- they're walls made up of separate but interconnected stories.

Saga, though, has always presented itself as a story. A story told by a grown-up Hazel, some time in the future, which presumably explains how she can tell us things that happened in secret far away to other people. A story with a single through-line: how this family got through a galactic war and (we hope) found peace. So we're expecting more than just twenty-some pages of action each month; it all has to add up to the story of this family.

And the longer a story goes on, the bigger the ending has to be to suit it. (Ask George R.R. Martin.) With the issues collected in this Volume Seven, Saga is now forty-two issues long -- that might be half of the whole, or more, or less. We don't know. The debt of that ending is continuing to grow, and will grow until we get to it.

Is it a good sign or a bad one that this volume collects a complete arc, with a definitive shape? (Does that make it a story, or a chapter?) This is some of the strongest work in Saga since the beginning, as if Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples cracked their knuckles and said "OK, we got the family back together -- now it's time to fuck shit up." That's a good sign, whichever way you fall on the story question.

In the end, I think I land on a slightly different set of questions: is Saga still compelling? is it still moving in the same direction? does it seem to have not just a vector but real velocity on its path? are these people still real and true to themselves?

And, from these issues -- or this chapter, or this Volume Seven, call it what you will -- the answer to all of those questions is still yes. So I'm still on board, though I would like to have a sense of how big the story will be overall. All stories have to end, even the good ones. Even this one. Stories that don't end aren't stories, they're just things that happened.

And I want Saga to be a story. It has the potential to be a great one.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Hellboy: Into the Silent Sea

Wait. I thought Hellboy was dead? I mean, yes, he died and went to hell, but I also thought that series ended and Mignola was going to rest the character -- at least for a while, maybe for good. So what is this small hardcover that came out in the spring?

Mignola doesn't explain the discrepancy, but I guess he doesn't have to: he can write stories about his characters whenever he wants to and however he wants to. And the story itself does explain where Hellboy: Into the Silent Sea slots into the series continuity -- after Strange Places, soon before Hellboy's death -- for the comics audience, which cares about that most of all.

Frankly, I suspect Silent Sea exists because Mignola wanted to see Gary Gianni draw some old sailing ships and giant demon-snakes and assorted monsters. (Not to mention Hellboy himself.) And that's OK -- a fairly large swath of comics exists because it's stuff someone wanted to draw, or someone else wanted him to draw, rather than because it's a story that needed to be told. (All of those dinosaurs and motorcycles and purple covers, all of those buckles and pouches and gigantic guns and scars that run precisely over one eye.)

Anyway, no matter why, Into the Silent Sea is a thing that exists. And, given that it's drawn by Gary Gianni, it's beautiful in its creepy horribleness. But it's also, frankly, a bit random and pointless, with Hellboy in the 19th century for some unknown reason (was Strange Places a time-travel anthology?). There he finds a sailing ship, gets tied up, is repeatedly emoted at by two distinctly different monomaniacs, befriends the requisite young boy, and eventually punches a big snakelike monster that seems to have been going away anyway.

In other words, it's a Hellboy story. The shorter ones that don't rely on particular bits of folklore have been tending more and more to type for the past decade or so, and Silent Sea could serve as template for the Standard Hellboy Standalone Story.
  • No Recurring Characters? Check
  • Guest Artist? Check
  • Giant Monster Hellboy Gets to Punch? Check
  • Monster Is Not Actually Defeated? Check
  • Lunatics Meddling Where Man Should Not Go? Check
  • Eerie Ending Returning Hellboy Whence He Came? Check
Look, this is just fine as a Hellboy story. And the Gianni art is, again, very impressive. But none of this means anything. And -- not that Mignola listens to me -- I'd suggest that future one-off Hellboy stories should focus more on actual folklore than throwaway bits of Mignola's Lovecraft cosmology. The mythos stuff works best if it's related to the main story, and the main story is now over -- so that's no longer an option.

This is a nice minor Hellboy story, but we already have a lot of those, and they're starting to rhyme pretty obviously.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Betty Boop by Roger Langridge and Gisele Lagace

I have no idea why someone said, in the year 2016, "Hey, what this world really needs is a Betty Boop comic book!" It seems like an odd and unlikely thing to say, even if one happened to work in licensing for an entity that happened to own the rights to Miss Boop.

But it must have happened, because that comic book did come out, in four issues, and they were duly collected under the simple and obvious title Betty Boop. (Because, even if this isn't the first Boop comic ever in the history of the world -- though it may well be, for all I know -- there's no possibility of confusion in the marketplace with all of the other Boop collections.)

Luckily, whoever the person who had the brain-spasm in re Betty had the good sense to hire Roger Langridge to write the Boop comic. Langridge has previously translated musical comedy into comics both in his own works (The Show Must Go On, for example) and licensed properties like The Muppets. Since I can't think of anyone else who has even attempted musical comedy in comics form -- most people think not being able to hear the music is an insuperable obstacle, which has never stopped Langridge -- he was clearly the best and only choice for the job. The fact that he also has a love for old bits of popular culture, particularly cartoons and comics (see his work on Popeye for another example) is only lagniappe.

There may be people out there who can speak learnedly to the Boop milieu -- who will know precisely how canonical her job as a waitress at the Oop-a-Doop club is; when her friends/co-workers Bimbo, Sal, and Koko the Clown first appeared; her tangled relationships with boss Mister Finkle and bandleader Scat Skellington and villain Lenny Lizardlips and her Grampy; what tunes the songs in this book are to be sung to and any relationship those songs have with the historical Betty Boop. I am not one of those people. So I'll point and say that all that stuff is in this book.

(By the way, the cover is actually a variant from issue 1 by Howard Chaykin and doesn't quite look like the Gisele Lagace art inside. It also implies a relationship between Betty and Koko that in no way appears in the book.)

I know Lagace's work mostly from her sexy webcomic Menage a 3, but others may have seen the work she's done in comics (for Archie properties mostly, I think). Either way, she has a known expertise for drawing attractive girls, but she's also just fine with the cartoonier aspects of Betty's world -- and, since this is a Depression-Era world, there's a lot of cartoony elements. She also manages to keep Betty's ridiculously oversized head look reasonable and consistent, possibly through secret black arts.

Again, I have no idea why anyone thought a Betty Boop comic would be a good idea, or if this one made more than ten cents total. But it's a lot of fun, in a not-entirely retro style, and it has the feeling of those bouncing, singing old black-and-white cartoons on the page. It's a massive success at something weird and unlikely and quirky, which is the kind of thing I like to celebrate.

Read in July

If you're American, Canadian, or French, this was the month where you celebrated how totally awesome and free your country is. If not, well...I'm sure you've got a holiday like that somewhere on the calendar, with about the same level of hypocrisy.

Some of us, though, prefer sitting inside and doing quieter things to standing outside and watching parades pass by. Like reading these books, for example....

Bill Griffith, Lost and Found (7/5)

Charles M. Schulz, The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 26 (7/6)

Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures (7/8)

Matt Fraction, Annie Wu, Javier Pulido, and others, Hawkeye, Vol. 3: L.A. Woman (7/12)

Yumemakura Baku and Jiro Taniguchi, The Summit of the Gods, Vol. 1 (7/13)

Emil Ferris, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters (7/15)

John Allison, Bad Machinery, Vol. 7: The Case of the Forked Road (7/18)

Roger Langridge and Gisele Lagace, Betty Boop (7/19)

P.J. O'Rourke, How The Hell Did This Happen? (7/19)

Mike Mignola and Gary Gianni, Hellboy: Into the Silent Sea (7/25)

Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, Saga, Vol. 7 (7/26)



Thanks for your time, and welcome to August.