Monday, December 11, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/9

I have thoroughly run out of ways to open this weekly post, so now each Sunday I sit and stare blankly at a computer screen, hoping to think of another way to say the same thing once again. Eventually, I write something like this, and I can keep going. But I want to warn you that, some day, I might just give up and never be seen again.

But not this week!

This time out, I got one book in the mail, so I can tell you about that. It's Mississippi Roll, the twenty-fourth book in the long-running shared universe "Wild Cards" series. This one is credited as edited by George R.R. Martin, who has been running the whole shebang since 1987's Wild Cards. (Always, I think, aided to one degree or another by Melinda M. Snodgrass, whose credit appears and disappears semi-randomly.) Wild Cards is set in a universe where first contact was made soon after WW II in a rather unpleasant way: an alien spaceship set off a "gene bomb" that caused mayhem worldwide. If I remember the percents correctly, 90% of the people affected just died immediately. Then about 90% of the survivors were hideously deformed in one way or another, becoming "Jokers." About 1%, then, got at least somewhat useful superpowers and still looked like normal human beings. I'm not quite sure how new Jokers and Aces are created at this point in the timeline, sixty-some years later -- maybe the bomb created some endemic pockets of contamination that people stumble into, or if everyone now has some chance of Joker-izing or Ace-ificating at birth or puberty or whenever. But, in any case, this is a world with superheroes, and supervillains, and mutated freaks, and odder things, and has had them for three-plus generations by the start of this book.

Mississippi Roll starts up a new trilogy, which makes it a decent starting point. I personally read the first dozen or so -- all of the Bantam series, which descended into the usual shared-world problem of "my villain is even worse than yours!" iterated several times with body-swapping rapist fiends trying to conquer the world -- and petered out somewhere in that very dark period. I have no idea if the evil body-swapping has died down, but it's been close to two decades and ten more books, so I certainly hope so.

Anyway, this new one is a Tor hardcover and hit stores last week. I used to really like this series, and may dip back into it once again. Maybe you'd like it, too?

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Madwoman of the Sacred Heart by Alexandro Jodorowsky and Moebius

Twenty-some years ago, it was reading a bunch of random Moebius books that convinced me that French comics were all about philosophical bullshit. I've since been convinced otherwise, through the work of Jason and Trondheim and Kerascoet and Vehlmann and a number of others, but damn if this dull turd of a book didn't cut through all of that good stuff with a new load of weapons-grade bullshit, and almost changed my mind back again.

Moebius is not solely responsible for Madwoman of the Sacred Heart. He was just the artist this time out, so he's only responsible for what's good about this book: the clarity of line and real space that the first two-thirds of the book has (before it starts become a cramped mess of way too many small panels stuffed with far too many stupid words). The script here comes from screenwriter and international goofball Alexandro Jodorowsky, well-known for the quality of his philosophical bullshit across several media.

As usual with French comics philosophical bullshit, there's a bunch of religious loonies who talk far too much about things no one is interested in reading about and the one supposedly normal guy at the middle of it all who gets dragged along, presumably to be the audience's view into this "exciting" and "revelatory" and "mind-expanding" warmed-over '60s merde. Unfortunately, the one sane guy in Madwoman is the deeply unlikable Alan Mangel, a massive prick of a philosophy professor who starts the book with a cult-like student following and spends most of it with a diarrhea problem. (No, I am not joking. Much of his dialogue is dedicated to informing the reader that he has shit his pants once again. Lo! How transgressive is Jodorowsky!)

One of Mangel's students decides she's the reincarnation of the mother of John the Baptist -- or something roughly congruent to that -- and that Mangel is the destined father. This of course means there must also be a Joseph (a local pusher) and Mary (daughter of a South American drug baron, currently institutionalized either because she's actually crazy or her father thinks she is), and those four form our merry band of completely insane people, whom the reader is forced to follow for the entire book.

The crazy people aren't interestingly crazy: they're French crazy, which means they make long speeches about the way the universe works and the power of love and their place in the scheme of things and other things that will cause an American reader to lose consciousness rapidly. Even worse, their pseudo-philosophical bullshit seems to be right within the context of the story, inasmuch as it can be understood at all. (Which is not very far.)

So nutty things happen, and the crazy women talk too much. Then more nutty things happen, Mangel shits his pants, and they talk too much again. Repeat for nearly two hundred pages.

Just when you think you've got the rhythm down, we drop into the third section of Madwoman -- I think this was originally three French albums, though this 2011 Humanoids edition doesn't explain that in the slightest -- which is cramped and awkward, and, if this is even possible, more boring and stultifying than the first two. Perhaps Jodorowsky took a look at his notes, realized he still had eighty or ninety pages of philosophical bullshit to cram into fifty comics pages, and told Moebius to draw smaller. Whatever happened, suddenly there are twice as many panels to a page, and the pages are duller -- the one strong point Madwoman had up to that point was Moebius's layouts and art, so clearly that could not be allowed to stand.

This book is the kind of thing that makes you stupider as you read it: it not only wastes your time, but actively destroys brain cells along the way. I cannot in good conscience recommend it for any purpose; the coated paper would make it unsuitable even to use to start a fire. Moebius has done better work -- his "Blueberry" westerns are particularly good, and some of the comics he wrote himself are only slightly tinged with philosophical bullshit. I can't speak for Jodorowsky, but I hope not everything he touches turns out this bad; it would be difficult to sustain a career if that were the case.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Herbie Archives, Volume One by Shane O'Shea and Ogden Whitney

Yeah, it did take me until now to finally read Herbie. It is so much exactly the kind of thing that I would like that the delay seems weird, but it's a big world, and you can only do one thing at a time. I finally got to this particular thing, and can finally talk about it.

But wait! You say. Did I come in the middle of something? What on earth are you going on about?

All right, all right. Herbie Popnecker was the "hero" of a series of stories from the American Comics Group, for about a decade from 1958 through 1967 -- first as one-off stories in anthologies, then as the star of twenty-three issues of his own comic in 64-67. He's a short, fat, torpid, laconic kid with heavy-lidded eyes, a bowl haircut, and a lollipop always in his mouth, whose father is constantly complaining about him and calling him a "little fat nothing." He doesn't like sports or schoolwork or playing with other kids; at home he tends to sit in a straightback chair and doze, and we don't see him at school or interacting with his peers.

So far, so promising for a humor title, right? Sounds just like the thing in the '50s-'60s burst of teen-interest comics, with Archie and Binky and Scooter!

Well, Herbie was more than just a little fat nothing, luckily. He was also world-famous, almost omnipotent, and oddly resourceful. His lollipops gave him superpowers -- this is slightly inconsistent, since sometimes he seems to have power merely because he is Herbie -- and his aid is regularly sought by US Presidents and UN Secretary-Generals. Gorgeous women swoon at his approach. Vicious animals flee when they realize who he is. He travels in time, via lollipop and a flying boat-like grandfather clock, and can walk under the oceans and across empty space to reach distant planets.

And, if threatened, all he needs to do is ask "You want I should bop you with this here lollipop?" Herbie's bop is a force that can frighten the greatest forces in the universe -- in just this book, we see suns, dragons, and Satan himself cowed by it.

That is one weird mix of elements, and it doesn't seem like it should work. But ACG editor Richard E. Hughes (writing as "Shane O'Shea") kept a deadpan tone around Herbie, making it all strangely plausible. And Ogden Whitney drew all of the stories in a solid, straightforward style -- both of them as if to drain any possible insinuation of imagination out of the stories, as if to prove Herbie's adventures must be plausible if they are this normal-seeming.

It worked. It still works, now: some elements are a little outdated (the supernatural creatures are somewhat comic-booky and of their time), but most of Herbie is unique and sui generis. And many individual panels are still laugh-out-loud funny after fifty-plus years.

The first third of the Herbie stories were collected in 2008 as Herbie Archives, Volume One, which is what I finally read. There are two more volumes, collecting the rest of the Herbie stories, which I now need to dig up and read. If you like weird comics, you probably already know about Herbie. If you've never read him, you'll probably want to move him up in the queue -- this is still really good stuff, nutty and crazy in all the best midcentury ways.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/1

This time of year, a lot of businesses slow down, under the weight of holiday parties and darkness-induced depression and everyone's sudden desire to use their vacation days before they lose them. [1] Book publishing can be like that, since it relies on getting product out into retail outlets (physical or digital) and then trying to drive consumer interest.

Which is a long way round to saying that I don't have any new books to write about this week, and I'm not expecting the weeks between now and the end of the year will be any more fruitful.

But I know I have far more books than I can read in any reasonable time (probably 3-5 years worth, even if I was back up at my reading prime), so not getting new ones if not a huge burden. And there will be new books eventually: there always are.

So check back next week to see if "eventually" has come around yet.

[1] Some businesses, or portions of businesses, actually speed up, especially sales organizations with a calendar year-end. My current employer has pieces like that, but they're mostly too busy to even engage with other departments (like me) at this time of year.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick's last big collection of short stories was 2007's The Dog Said Bow-Wow, which somewhat explains the title of last year's Not So Much, Said the Cat.

(Note: there may be a talking cat somewhere in this book, and possibly even one that says "Not so much." But I can't recall what story that cat could possibly be in, so I will leave this as a possibility rather than a reality.)

It collects seventeen stories -- some may actually be novelettes, but none seem long enough to be novellas -- originally published in this last decade. Close to a majority came from Asimov's, but others were in F&SF, on, and in various anthologies. So it is possible that a very assiduous SFnal reader could have read all of these already -- perhaps more likely if that reader were a big Swanwick fan -- but it's not very likely.

As I've said several times before: there are two ways to write about a book full of short fiction: you can either (as I did for many years at the SFBC, writing internal reader's reports) run down story-by-story, giving thumbnail plot descriptions and canned literary judgments, or you can talk vaguely about the book as a whole. "Real" reviewers tend to do the latter, and not just because it's easier -- the former tends towards the tedious and unnecessary at the best of times. So I stick to the easy style these days, and not just because I don't read with a notebook open and full of scribbles anymore. (That's how I read, a lot of the time, for sixteen years. I miss it, now and then, but the feeling passes.)

The stories here are mixed SF and fantasy. I felt it tilted towards a fantasy feeling, but that's in large part because the SF is mostly post-apocalyptic, either part of Swanwick's "Darger and Surplus" series or similarly motivated, with mysterious superpowerful AIs serving as "gods" and "demons" and along the way proving Arthur C. Clarke's famous dictum.

More important than genre -- for me at least, and I hope for any self-respecting reader as well -- is the question of how good the stories are. They're very good: emotionally resonant, pointed and precise, carefully crafted for maximum impact. Swanwick is one of our best short-story writers, in genre or out of it, and this is yet another example of why.

I don't read a lot of short fiction these days -- I read a lot less of everything than I did, back when I read for a living -- so I'm not in any position to say any of you need to read anything in particular. But Swanwick is vital and important and great; if you read SF/fantasy short fiction at all, he's someone to know and keep track of.

Red in November

This might be another slim one: on top of my current issue of figuring out when and how to read when I'm not commuting as much (oh horrors! what a problem to have!), this is a month with a major holiday and a whole lot of college visits with my High School Junior second son.

I might be busy with things that aren't books -- this what I'm saying.

But when I was busy with books, these are the books I was busy with:

Charles M. Schulz, Schulz's Youth (11/1)

S. Gross and Jim Charlton, editors, Books, Books, Books (11/7)

Anonymous, editor, National Lampoon's Truly Sick, Tasteless, and Twisted Cartoons (11/8)

Bill Willingham, Phil Jimenez, and others, Fairest, Vol. 1: Wide Awake (11/14)

John Layman and Rob Guillory, Chew, Vol. 6: Space Cakes (11/15)

Lawrence Block, Campus Tramp (11/15)

Michael Swanwick, Not So Much, Said the Cat (11/17)

Shane O'Shea and Ogden Whitney, Herbie Archives, Vol. 1 (11/28)

Alexandro Jodorowsky and Moebius, Madwoman of the Sacred Heart (11/29)

That was November. As I expected, it was a bit light. I want to read more books, but when I pick up specific books, or try to find time for them, it hasn't been working out lately. Again, if this is the worst problem I have in my life, I'm doing pretty damn well.