Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #114: Borderline by Lawrence Block

I don't think the purpose of pulp fiction is to enforce public morality, exactly. That implies an official stature and teleology that is completely unjustified. But damn if pulp fiction doesn't enforce the public morality of its day really strongly -- and the way those stories tend to end quickly and violently makes the action of "fate" that much more obvious.

Borderline is a pulp novel from 1962 by Lawrence Block, here reprinted for the first time in about fifty years along with three stories of a similar vintage (two very short stories with kicker endings from '58 and '59, then a novelette from 1963 with more nuance in it). And boy howdy does it enforce the public morality of 1962, even if it seems for a long time that it might not.

It's one of those random-lives-intersecting plots, introducing four people in El Paso, Texas -- right on the border with Juarez, and, in those days, the border was a line you could walk across as long as there wasn't anything too obviously wrong. The action of the novel moves back and forth between the two cities, with Juarez the wild site, full of whores and gambling and live sex shows, and El Paso the boring spinster sister, clean but dull.

The four people are:
  • Marty, a professional gambler, living in El Paso for the last several years but mostly "working" over the border.
  • Meg, a young divorcee who stopped off on her way back to Chicago when she realized she had no reason at all to go back to Chicago. Recently freed from an old, dull husband, she's ready to live on her own terms.
  • Lily, a teenage runaway from Denver, most recently living in San Francisco. Her "boyfriend" whored her out to a nasty john and fled. leaving her broke and looking for somewhere to rest.
  • Weaver, the obligatory murderous madman, to remind us this is a pulp novel, and that nasty things have to happen to people looking for pleasure and normal life.
Marty and Meg meet and fall into bed; Lily finds herself an amenable group of locals and a way to make some money with serious downsides. Weaver lurks about to add tension, and kills some minor characters to show he means it.

They do all come together in the end, as they have to. It does not end particularly well for any of them. And conventional 1962 morality is strongly enforced, particularly on women who might want something other than a white picket fence and a pipe-smoking husband.

This is early Block, when he was still writing for a market. He was an excellent writer structurally even then -- this book is full of fine sentences and paragraphs and scenes -- but his characters are more surface than they would be starting later in the '60s.

But, even this far back, Block stories are full of characters doing things they don't expect to and trying to find reasons afterward: sometimes horrified, sometimes thrilled, sometimes both at once. It may just be me, but that's what I treasure the most in his work: the sense that people are confusing and unknowable and contradictory, and that you are "people" too.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #113: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 4: I Kissed a Squirrel and I Liked It by Ryan North and Erica Henderson

I've stopped reading the letter columns entirely at this point. Sorry, Ryan and Erica, but they don't make much sense in a collection to begin with, and I don't really care to see lots of stories about your young fans, cute though they may be. For what it's worth, I do glance at the pictures to see various people's cute daughters dressed up in homemade Squirrel Girl costumes, and I love that that is a thing that happens in the world.

But I'm here for the stories, so I'll focus on that. I hope you understand.

Here in the fourth volume -- under the run-on title The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 4: I Kissed a Squirrel and I Liked It -- I started to realize that this is more obviously an all-ages comic than I'd pigeonholed it as. (Marvel has been running so hard in the opposite direction for so long -- making everything grimmer and grittier and darker and so much more the kind of "adult" that appeals to grumpy twentysomething men -- that I assume they've entirely forgotten that children, and particularly girls, even exist.) But writer Ryan North and artist Erica Henderson have snuck a girl-positive, female-centric comic into a quirky little corner of the Marvel Universe, and hooray to them for that.

(See my posts on the first three volumes, if you care -- one and two and three.)

I realized that because this is the collection of stories all about the love life of Doreen Green, our titular Squirrel Girl. No, she doesn't meet someone who she falls in love with -- though the reverse is true, mostly because she's polite and pleasant in ways that person is not used to -- but she does decide to start dating in the middle of this run of issues, mostly because she's never done it before and thinks dating is something a college girl should do at least a little.

Her love life is shown in an entirely all-ages-appropriate way, pitched in a tone even those elementary school girls in hand-made costumes will understand and enjoy. She has the obligatory montage of bad dates, which is amusing but much like every other obligatory montage of bad dates. And there's the aforementioned person who falls in love with her because she apologizes for things and doesn't immediately turn to punching as a solution to conflict, unlike every other human being in the Marvel Universe. (Which provides a lesson to those girls, who may have similar people in their lives who need to be told firmly that she is not interested in them.)

Doreen does somewhat damage her series title in this volume, taking a dive in a fight. I admit, it's for a very good reason, but, still, it tends to make "unbeatable" less true. On the other hand, the whole point of this version of Squirrel Girl is that she's Unbeatable because she's not someone who turns to fighting as a first resort. Sure, her motto is "eat nuts and kick butts," and every costumed person in the MU is quite fond of punching, but she's about as pacifist as it's possible for a human being in a costume in Marvel NYC, always looking for another solution to every problem.

North and Henderson also continue to teach random computer-science concepts to their audience, which, again, makes more sense the more you realize that audience is largely young girls.

Kissed a Squirrel is really just a specific case of the general rule: everything becomes more like itself as it goes on, focusing down on the central, intrinsic elements and pushing aside the less important stuff. I suspect at some point Unbeatable Squirrel Girl will speciate enough that I'm not longer a good reader for it, and I'll stop reading it then. But we're not to that point yet: this may be mostly for smart girls and their parents, but there's still room for the rest of us. I hope it stays that way for a good long time.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/21/18

It's Monday, so here comes a list of new books -- well new to me, in that I just got them. They're not necessarily "new" in any other sense of the word.

This week, I got one book from the library and bought five -- so I'll lead with the library book.

Tank Girl Two collects the second series of stories about the punk heroine by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin, from 1990-1993, and sees the series move into color semi-consistently. As I recall, "semi" was still about as consistent as anything got at this point -- each Tank Girl story was still it's own separate thing, and continuity was for wankers. (I think that changed at some point: there seem to be Tank Girl comics with DC-looking splash pages and character development and multi-issue plots these days, which offends and appalls me.)

Now, to the books I've bought -- all of them expected to be relatively quick to read, showing their role as Book-A-Day fodder:

Baboon Metaphysics and Other Implausible Titled Books, which is not credited to any author at all, is the second collection of nominated titles from the world's greatest literary award: The Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year. (I suspect Horace Bent has something to do with this -- speaking of things that are implausibly titled -- but he's not credited anywhere.) This was the "sequel" to How To Avoid Huge Ships.

Stories from a Theme Park Insider by Robert Niles -- Niles runs the similarly-titled Theme Park Insider blog/website, which has the most diverse and active community around that topic I've found yet. And this was his book of war stories, from when he worked (as a young man, almost thirty years ago) at Walt Disney World. I'm planning an anniversary trip there with The Wife, later this year, so I'm getting into the mood.

All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault is a brand-new novel by James Alan Gardner after far, far too long. (He wrote Expendable and about a half-dozen follow-up novels starting about twenty years ago, and seems to have dropped off the publishing radar when that series stopped, for whatever reason.) I'm slightly worried about this one, since it seems to be a superhero novel in which science-based characters are all Good Guys and magic-based characters are all Bad Guys, which sets off my essentialism detector. Also, y'know, my well-documented problems with superheroes to begin with. But, on the plus side, Gardner's back!

Luba and Her Family by Gilbert Hernandez -- I think this is the last of the Love & Rockets uniform paperbacks (current set) that I needed to get, since I do plan to read through the whole thing later this year. (I still need to sit down with a bibliography and make sure I have it all and figure out what order to read it.) I suspect this was hard to find because of a misprint -- the spine says Jaime Hernandez. Oops.

And last is a big fat twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Dave McKean's Cages. If I remember right, I read this in floppy form as it came out, and haven't been back to it since. So it's about time.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #112: Tank Girl, Vol. 1 by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin

Punk is one of the greatest impulses of humanity: that "oh, fuck it" sense of just getting out there and doing the thing even if you don't know how. Making noise or art or both, getting out there in public and maybe making a fool of yourself and definitely not caring.

(Maybe I admire it since it's so opposite to who I am, but that's a different point.)

Tank Girl is one of the great punk comics -- probably the greatest. (I'm trying to think of other examples -- early Flaming Carrot is the other major one for me, but Tank Girl mainlined punk attitude in the story as well as embodying it in the style.)

Jamie Hewlett wanted to make some comics. He had a chance to get them published. And he had a random character -- well, really, just a name -- that amused him. So he drew some damn comics, and dragged his friend in Alan Martin to do the lettering and (eventually) most of the writing. That is punk.

Tank Girl, Vol. 1 reprints that first burst of stories, which originally appeared mostly in Deadline magazine in the late '80s and turned into a book around 1990. This particular edition is from Titan Books, from 2002, so it has historical introductions from both Hewlett and Martin -- but it has been, in its turn, superseded by a newer "remastered" edition from 2009.

These stories have very little continuity: each one is what Hewlett (or, maybe, later on, Martin) wanted to do that particular month, and, from their accounts, the stories were mostly started and completed at great speed right at deadline time. So they start from the same point, with a heroine who is a loud, raucous, hard-drinking soldier (??) in a mildly apocalyptic version of the Australian outback, and then head off in whatever direction for the five or eight or twelve pages they had that issue at high speed, only to crash at the end. Details accumulate, like Tank Girl's sapient kangaroo boyfriend Booga and her counterparts/friends Jet Girl and Sub Girl, but stories don't lead from one to the next or connect directly.

Tank Girl is punk. Each story is a separate three-minute single. You're not getting some prog-rock arty-farty rock opera here. If you're not comfortable with that, Tank Girl is not the comic for you.

I love the energy and enthusiasm and raw power of these early stories, even if I have to squint to read some of the lettering before Martin took over. (And even if the first few stories tend to flail around semi-randomly before stopping at the end of their page count.) I see that various folks including either Hewlett or Martin kept doing Tank Girl stories after I stopped paying attention -- I think I drifted away around the time of the horrifically bad movie -- so I might have to catch up, to see what punk did when it grew up this time.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #111: The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 1 by Herge

Other people's childhood adventure stories are rarely that impressive when you discover them as an adult. Now, where have I heard that before?

I've never read Tintin before. I gather the books were available in the US at some point -- I recall seeing albums in the library when my kids were young, and they may have been around when I was young -- but I never saw them then, and didn't come across them in the ordinary way of a voraciously reading kid. (I jumped over to the adult books really early, to hit the SF and mystery sections.)

But there's always time to read a book today, so I just got to the first of a seven-volume series that collects what I think is the whole series by Herge. This one is unsurprisingly titled The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 1, and contains the individual stories Tintin in America, Cigars of the Pharoah, and The Blue Lotus, originally serialized in the early 1930s, collected soon afterward, and reworked into these color versions ten to twenty years later.

(Doing a little research while writing this led me to Herge's Wikipedia page, where I learned that the books collected here were preceded by the tendentious Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and the racist Tintin in the Congo. Well, just yesterday I read the first omnibus of a bande desinee series that included the first two not-quite-right stories, so it's fitting that today I have a similar book that ignores its even more problematic first two books entirely.)

This is high adventure of the old school, with a boy hero to be more vulnerable and to be more of an identification figure to an audience of boys. Tintin is ostensibly a reporter, though we don't see him put pen to paper a single time in these three stories, and he has no visible means of support at all. Again, adventure story -- Tintin is a fantastic character in a fantastic world, free to engage in battling evil wherever he finds it and inevitably victorious in that fight because he's on the side of good. It's a comforting style of story for young men, who themselves have to live in a world where they do need means of support and where evil wins out probably half of the time.

I hadn't realized these stories were serialized when I read them, but it makes sense -- they have that one-damn-thing-after-another kind of plotting, with Tintin getting captured and escaping repeatedly, as he chases various nefarious criminals. I'm not going to get into the details of the three stories, because they're all the same sort of thing in different places, and each page has some kind of excitement.

This particular format is not great for the Tintin books -- it's a smallish hardcover, about 6" x 9", substantially smaller than the original album pages. Herge crams a lot of action and dialogue onto his pages, so people with eyes as old as mine with have to strain to see all of this -- I found myself peering under my glasses far too often. If you're getting Tintin for a young person with young eyes, this should be just fine.

I find this kind of story a little quaint these days, for reasons I got into more yesterday writing about Valerian. Tintin is obviously even more old-fashioned, by about forty years, and that shows in the plotting and style. It's all fun boys-own adventure, possibly the epitome of that style in comics form. But that mode is pretty artificial to begin with -- that's just something to deal with.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #110: Valerian: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1 by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres

Other people's childhood adventure stories are rarely that impressive when you discover them as an adult. That doesn't mean they're bad -- or any more so than your childhood adventure stories -- it just means that you should have read them at the right time, when you were ten or so and ready for anything.

I was forty-eight when I first read the adventures of Valerian and Laureline. It was just the other week, in Valerian: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1. That is much older than it should be, but I could argue that I'm not French, which made it hard to come across these books at the proper time. In any case, I read them now. So what?

Complete Collection Vol. 1 brings together the first three adventures of our space-and-time-hopping duo, written by Pierre Christin and drawn by Jean-Claude Mezieres. (And even the front matter agrees that the first two are a bit off-model for what the series eventually became -- a little thin, a little less interesting. So maybe it's not just me.) This particular volume looks to be a slightly rebranded version -- for the recent Luc Besson movie -- of the first in a standard collection of the whole series. And a big uniform set of books is the kind of thing that only happens, obviously, when something is really popular for a long time.

The omnibus aspect and the movie means there's more frontmatter here than usual for a graphic novel -- a three-way interview with Christin, Mezieres, and Besson (conducted by no one the book cares to mention); several very puffy "isn't this thing totally awesome" mini-essays; a claim that everything in filmed SF since about 1970 directly descends from Valerian; and a precis of the three stories reprinted here. All of that frontmatter is also copiously illustrated, with panels from the comics, photos of the creators and Besson, concept art from the movie, and related stuff.

First up is 1967's Bad Dreams, in which 28th century spatio-temporal agent Valerian is sent back from his leisure-society utopian future to the French Middle Ages in pursuit of a fugitive from his time who has discovered working magic and is going to use it to conquer the world. (The "magic that actually works" thing is strangely not a big deal, and looks like it never came up again.) Along the way, he meets a local girl, Laureline, and has to recruit her when she becomes a unicorn for a while learns about time travel and Valerian's organization.

Next was a big two-part epic from 1970, The City of Shifting Waters and Earth in Flames, in which the villain from Bad Dreams (Xombul) escapes and time-travels back to the obligatory late-20th-century apocalypse, landing in a 1986 New York inundated by rising seas in the very early days of an event that I have to assume will kill the majority of mankind. (As usual, this is just background -- what I tend to call "backswing fantasy" because it clears out space for the mighty hero to swing his sword.) Valerian and Laureline team up with a surprsingly-not-depicted-in-a-racist-way black crimelord (and, eventually, a Jerry-Lewis-as-the-Nutty-Professor scientist) to eventually defeat Xombul and keep the timeline clean.

"Keeping the timeline clean," of course, means "letting several billion people in the northern half of the world die horribly over the course of the next few months or years." But you can't make adventure stories without megadeaths, can you? And, anyway, our heroes do their job and get out -- hooray!

The omnibus ends with what they call the first real adventure of Valerian and Laureline, 1971's The Empire of a Thousand Planets. This is the one, I think, that was adapted into the Besson movie, though the story here doesn't bear much connection to what I saw in trailers. Our heroes are sent to another planet in their own time -- I have the vague sense the time-travel plots stopped entirely at this point, but I could be wrong -- Syrte, the seat of an empire that spans a thousand planets. (Earth, by comparison, is rich and powerful technologically, but does not seem to be an imperial power and is mostly hermetic, since the vast majority of its citizens spend all of their time in computer-controlled dreams.)

They are shockingly unprepared for this mission, in ways that are convenient to the plot and to create quick action, and learn that a group called the Enlightends has been slowly taking over Syrtean society and life. The Enlighteneds capture and shanghai our heroes, and the rest of the story is a series of escapes and recaptures, battles and confrontations, and learning about various plot-important things from sneaky overhearing and Talking Killers.

But, then again, it is an adventure story, so I just restated that in a roundabout way. Valerian and Laureline are in a somewhat old-fashioned style -- these stories are forty years old -- because they are still alive to be captured (and escape again) repeatedly. Somewhere along the line we realized that horrible villains would really just kill people, and our adventure stories changed tone.

These three stories are fun and zippy, full of action and incident, and they do definitely get better and more assured as they go along. (Bad Dreams isn't bad, but it's a little shaky, and the casual use of transformation magic in particular is far different from the rest of the material here.) They're still fine fare for ten-year-olds of all ages, and I enjoyed them quite a bit, even if I hadn't imprinted on them as a youth.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #109: As Naughty As She Wants to Be! by Roberta Gregory

I use the tag "The War Between Men and Women" here now and then, but I'm well aware that the war is mostly fought from one end -- the one that coined the term. (James Thurber, if you don't know.)

For once, I have a dispatch from the beleaguered rebels in that war, the outgunned and oppressed and overwhelmed majority of humanity. I'm probably not a very good reader for this book, but let me see what I can tell you about it.

Naughty Bits was, as far as I can tell, a late underground -- more like the comics of the '60s and '70s than like the burgeoning alternative-comics scene of the '80s and '90s whence it emerged. It was personal and vitriolic and full of multitudes and political in that way that was also entirely personal. It was all by Roberta Gregory, whose work I didn't really pay close attention to before I saw this book.

"This book" is the second Naughty Bits collection, As Naughty As She Wants To Be!, published in 1995 to collect the stories from Naughty Bits that had too much sex in them for the first collection. (Since this was the era where Fantagraphics, Naughty Bits' publisher, was going all-in on sex in comics through the Eros imprint, I'm not 100% sure why, but my educated guess involves the letters B and N and the word Borders.)

Leading off the book, and taking up a little more than half of the space, are stories featuring Gregory's major series character, Bitchy Bitch. BB is teetering on the edge of middle age and bitter about...well, basically everything in her life. She has a job she hates among people she hates, she doesn't have a boyfriend and hates all of the men she meets, she's horny a lot of the time and both being horny and satisfying her urges makes her feel bad, she wants to be a better person but keeps getting in her own way. She'd be a sad character if she weren't so ferociously obnoxious and pugnacious -- she's the female equivalent of that guy always getting drunk and into fights because he has nothing else to do.

Of course, the flip side of that is that BB is also all raging id, all of the feelings that women are told to repress and hold inside in modern society. She feels to me like the entirely female counterpart to some of R. Cumb's similarly id-obsessed characters, blazing a trail for women to be as crude and loud and demanding as men always are allowed to be. It's no surprise that she's been Gregory's most popular character.

Gregory draws the BB stories with a loose, angry line -- almost a scrawl -- to underscore BB's view of the world. The rest of the stories here are drawn in a less cartoony style, since they're about more real people in a more real world -- still as feminist, still as concerned with gender issues, but more nuanced. (Well, "Crazy Bitches" is explicitly her turnabout on Crumb, and so not nuanced at all -- but that's the point.)

This is probably an outlier for Gregory: she's done a lot of comics in a lot of modes over the years, and this was specifically a collection of her "sexy" comics, mostly drawn from the BB-centric Naughty Bits series, at a time and for a publisher that was doing a lot of sex comics. I expect she's this feminist most of the time -- I certainly hope so -- but my guess is that sex and men are much less important in her work, for the same reason.

But As Naughty As She Wants To Be! is a reminder of what underground comix can be, and a good example of how they're not necessarily sexist and misogynistic, even if that comes out far too often in the usual suspects.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #108: Jon Sable Freelance: Ashes of Eden by Mike Grell

I feel bad picking on Jon Sable. He's a favorite of the ComicMix team, and they've been very nice to me over the years. In fact, the book I have here is a limited edition for Baltimore Comic-Con 2008 -- number 96 of 100. [1] It makes me wish I liked it better.

But we can't choose to like things, can we? I've never been any good at that. (I read four Jon Sable collections two years ago, which I was not able to choose to like, and buried my thoughts about them in a belated round-up post.)

Jon Sable Freelance: Ashes of Eden was a new story about the ex-big-game-hunter turned freelance security expert and bestselling kids-book writer, appearing on the ComicMix site before being collected into book form a decade ago. (That was a model that had a lot of promise in those days. And people do buy books of comics that appear online first, it's just that they only seem to buy them if the books and comics can creditably claim to be self-published.)

Ashes of Eden has got some big-white-hunter stuff -- you have to expect that with Jon Sable Freelance; it's baked into his origin as deeply as possible -- but I didn't find it particularly racist, maybe because this story takes place mostly in the US. It's a bit sexist, but if we're going to complain about that in mainstream comics we'll be here all day.

Jon is hired to guard a fabulous diamond and a fabulous dame, both coming from South Africa to NYC for an auction. (The dame is going to MC the auction, more or less.) The diamond is massive, and is expected to be world-famous once it's cut. The dame is a fictional Iraqi version of Sharbat Gula, somewhere in her mid-20s and oozing sex and neediness the way such women always do in stories about tough gun-slinging men told by other men. There are, of course, nefarious forces that want to hijack the diamond, which is why it needs guarding. The dame -- I might as well give her her name: Bashira -- needs guarding because she's the kind of recovering addict who has no self-control but looks absolutely perfect at all times. (She's addicted to drugs, obviously. Grell also makes the obvious hints that she's addicted to sex and danger, as all such fictional women must be.)

Jon gets Bashira and what's eventually called The Maguffin Diamond to the auction, where of course further nefarious actions happen. Some of them are the obvious ones, and some of them are slightly less obvious. Jon's old nemesis/lover Maggie the Cat -- the obligatory gorgeous female cat burglar -- also becomes involved, hint hint nudge nudge.

And, yes, in the end Jon saves those worth saving and kills the rest. That's what he does. He has a confusing dream sequence along the way, in which the spirit of death (in the form of a sexy mostly naked African woman, of course) runs him through the kind of breakthroughs that usually costs a few thousand dollars and takes several years in therapy.

I find it difficult to take Jon Sable Freelance seriously; if he were anything like real, he would have been dead a hundred times by now. Luckily for those who enjoy reading his exploits, he is nothing like real. Grell tells a good adventure story in the standard style, and draws it equally well -- especially the many, many naked women who stalk and lounge around these pages.


[1] The cover at right is completely different from the book in front of me -- it even has different styles for the "Jon Sable Freelance" and "Ashes of Eden" logos. But the one shown here is the book you could find if you looked for it, and it's the one that exists online, so it's the picture you get.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #107: Strangehaven: Brotherhood by Gary Spencer Millidge

There are a lot of quirky comics out there -- and the point of quirkiness is that isn't not for everyone. Any particular quirk will only appear to a particular subset of readers. And even someone who, like me, thinks he's fond of quirk in general can find a particular instance just doesn't work.

I wanted to like Strangehaven: Brotherhood. I love the story behind it: how creator Gary Spencer Millidge did all the work himself, writing and drawing, and how it was deeply English and full of his influences and ideas. I appreciate the fact that it's exactly the comic he wanted to make, influenced most obviously by The Prisoner and Twin Peaks but to a lesser degree by a host of very specifically British works. I admire the fact that he worked on it for so long, telling just the story he wants to tell.

And the set-up is intriguing, too: Alex, a middle-aged Londoner with a broken marriage behind him, goes on a vacation in the West Country, has an ambiguously ghostly encounter, and ends up stuck in the small town of Strangehaven, full of colorful characters and odd secrets.

(Although, parenthetically, I would personally loathe every second of that -- being stuck somewhere I don't want to be, loads of chatty people who won't shut up, barely any mod cons, and the most exciting thing to do is walk around a bunch of grass and hills.)

Brotherhood is the second Strangehaven collection, but Millidge has a thoughtful introduction from Alex's point of view that brings the reader up to speed, and, even more importantly, explains who the characters are with pictures. (Another reason I wanted to like this: Millidge is doing it all right.)

But...you knew there was a "but," right?

I didn't much like Alex, and, as I said just above, my personal reaction to "stuck in a somewhat supernatural way in a small town of quirky people" would be to burn the whole fucking thing down with cleansing fire until the bastard town let me out. So I was not so much in sympathy with his point of view as I might have been.

This is a talky comic, and I found it a chore to read a lot of the time -- only a scene where Basil Fawlty talks, from the TV screen, directly to a character really sang for me. (That was laugh-out-loud funny, I'll admit. I expect more things here are equally funny to actual British people.) Millidge also has a very heavily photo-referenced art style, particularly for people, and that struck me as fussy.

I guess "fussy" is the one word that hits me about Strangehaven. It felt like one of those claustrophobic rooms where an old person has been collecting bric-a-brac for fifty years, and then the old bag decides to tell you about every last piece of it.

There are certainly American readers who will love -- or already have loved -- Strangehaven. You yourself may even be one of them. But it didn't work very well for me, which means I'm not nearly as much of an Anglophile as I think I am.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #106: King David by Kyle Baker

America is more Christian than a lot of the rest of the world realizes. It's not just a right-wing thing, either -- the King James Bible is as central to the language of the USA as our Constitution is, and the question of what church someone belongs to [1] is important in hard-to-describe ways across a lot of this country.

It shouldn't be a surprise: most of the founding myths of the USA boil down to "Those People wouldn't let us do our weird Christian sect the way we wanted to, so we got the hell out of there and started in a new land, where We could be the ones oppressing everyone else." That got baked in early, and deeply. It's not a Christian country, officially -- because, when it was founded, trying to pick a flavor of Christianity would have torn the nascent country apart -- but it's a country dominated by Christianity in a million flavors...though most of them these days are much more sure that a rich man will get into heaven than that a camel can pass through the eye of a needle.

Thus Gilbert Hernandez's bizarre biblical sex-fest Garden of the Flesh. Thus R. Crumb's textually rigorous Book of Genesis. And, more than a decade before either of them, Kyle Baker's 2002 graphic novel King David.

As is typical for major comics-makers turning to biblical matters, King David is weird. It's from that era where Baker was shifting from making comics that looked traditional -- ink on paper, in separate boxes drawn on a page, and then colored by someone else -- into a more painted look that I think was mostly done electronically, and looks like the images might have been created separately and later assembled into pages. (Baker, then and now, had tremendous chops, so it's not easy for my eye to be clear on what tools he used to do whichever particularly impressive thing. ) That's not particularly weird, though.

How about this? King David is presented in a format more like a picture book than a comic: large pieces of art arrayed on the page in loose layouts, with text floating around them (often in very large passages) in a fussy italic font. There are a lot of words to read here, and a text that does not make that easy.

OK, and what about the tone? King David bounces back-and-forth from a relatively respectful style that echoes some Jacobean language without trying to sound Olde Englishe to snippy, snappy dialogue that would be more at home in Baker's What I Hate About Saturn. That's pretty weird, too.

For those of us brought up at least nominally Christian in America, most of King David will be familiar -- it's telling us a story we know, with a uniquely Bakeresque twist. (I have no idea how any biblical story plays out to someone unfamiliar with it, but at least this part of the Bible is relatively light on random massacres, plagues, and general horrible Bronze Age morality.) We start out with David as a cute kid, and see him first soothe the crazed King Saul, and then battle Goliath. The wars with the Philistines go on, and David grows into a popular hero, which of course does not sit well with paranoid, still-crazy Saul. Eventually, David becomes King, and we see him fall himself at the very end, cause the death of Uriah the Hittite so that he can take Uriah's wife Bathsheba for his own.

Baker calls out some of the problematic material in that occasional snarky tone -- the ancient Israelites were much more fond of one rich guy having a lot of wives than we are, for example -- but the religion at the core of it is taken seriously. I don't know what Baker believes, or what he did believe in 2002, but this is a book about faith in God and doing the right thing. None of the showy miracles come in, so it's all people talking about faith in God and doing the right thing, but they firmly believe it, and Baker presents that belief honestly.

Again, this is a biblical comic by a serious comic-maker, which means it's weird: it's neither a proselytizing work nor one that mocks religion, but nods in both directions alternately, and occasionally simultaneously. It may be the quirkiest work in Baker's career, which is saying something about the creator of Special Forces.


[1] Or, in the case of the lapsed or strayed, would have belonged to or used to belong to. Cultural markers aren't removed that easily.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/14/18

Hello again! This is the weekly post where I write about any new books I've gotten, in whatever ways. This time out, I got a big box from the fine folks at Edward R. Hamilton, a great source for remainders and other random books for people like me who want 'em by the yard. And I got three books from the library, the last pieces of a massive number of holds I put in at the end of March. I'll run through them in that order, starting with books I now own and which may or may not have little red dots on the page-edge somewhere or other.

It Just Slipped Out... is a collection of double entendres, arranged alphabetically by Russell Ash. It appears to be quite British, which should be interesting -- I'll have to see how often I have no idea about either side of the entendre.

I Only Read It For the Cartoons is a book of profiles of New Yorker cartoonists by Richard Gehr -- focusing on current cartoonists, as far as I can see, and including Lorenz, Gross, Chast, Booth, Koren, Barsotti, Levin, Roberts, Wilson, Ziegler, Kanin, and Makoff.

Severed, by Frances Larson, is a history of heads, once they've been separated from their bodies. I saw a good review of it a while back, and have been vaguely looking for it since, so now I guess I need to read it.

How to Talk Minnesotan by Howard Mohr -- I'm spending more time there, given my company's home office is just outside the Twin Cities, and I'm on calls with large numbers of Minnesotans for several hours a day. So you betcha I want to know how to talk to 'em.

My Father, the Pornographer is Chris Offutt's memoir of his father Andy Offutt. I read Andy's books, off and on -- he was one of the best writers of Thieves' World, and I had a vague plan to read all of his softcore SF "Spaceways" series at one point -- so I've been wanting to get this for a while. Chris is apparently a respected literary writer, with a better career than his old man had, and, from media reports, this is mostly about Andy Offutt the horrible person and writer of really bottom-drawer porn.

Will Not Attend is by Adam Resnick, a TV writer who hates being with people. This is a collection of essays and stories about that feeling, which I can definitely sympathize with.

That's Not Funny, That's Sick is a history of National Lampoon by Ellin Stein, one of those interesting clusters of funny people of the late 20th century that was intensely influential on everything that came after it. I'm also intrigued because Stein is both female and British, and NatLamp was aggressively masculine (juvenile masculine, to be clearer) and American, so that should be a different perspective.

Over Seventy is something like an autobiography by P.G. Wodehouse, written late in his life, but apparently mostly (very deliberate) digressions from answering specific questions. And Wodehouse is always fun.

Twilight is some kind of SF comic by Howard Chaykin and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, which I think uses a bunch of old DC space-hero characters in new gritty forms. It's from 1990, so I suspect it was originally aimed to be the Watchmen of Space DC -- but that could still be good. I don't think I've ever read it, and I'm surprised to see it's that old.

Jonah Hex: Shadows West collects the three stories about the old DC Western character written by Joe Lansdale and drawn by Tim Truman in the '90s -- I'm not sure I ever read the third one. Lansdale does weird western as well as anyone, and Truman is a great comics creator who I wish got a lot more work and attention.

Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat!, Vol. 1: Hooked on a Feline by Kate Leth, Brittney L. Williams and Natasha Allegri -- I generally try to get "superheroes done right" comics like this from the library, but this was cheap, and it sounded interesting. I suspect the way Marvel collapses seventy years of real-world history and changing social mores into the lives of characters they insist are still in their twenties or thirties will be annoying, but I'll see.

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is adapted from the Lovecraft novella by I.N.J. Culbard. I liked all of Culbard's other Lovecraft adaptions, and I hope he keeps doing them for as long as he wants to and there are more Lovecraft stories out there.

The Last Dragon is some kind of fairy-tale-esque graphic novel written by Jane Yolen and drawn by Rebecca Guay. I haven't read as much Yolen as I should, and this was cheap -- so I grabbed it even though I'd never heard of it before.

And then there are the three books I got from libraries:

The two paperbacks reprinting the recent run of The Vision written by Tom King and drawn mostly by Gabriel Hernandez Walta -- first is Little Worse Than a Man and second is Little Better Than a Beast. I'm hopeful about these, since it got in and out in a dozen issues, so I have hopes that was the plan. But "good superhero comics" have been dashing my hopes for thirty years now.

And last is Guerillas, Vol. 2 by Brahm Revel, some kind of fantastic war comic about chimpanzee soldiers in Vietnam. I was slightly annoyed when the library delivered it, since I didn't realize this was a multi-part story, and they gave me number two. But I vaguely remembered it, and it turns out I have the first volume sitting, moldering, in a random book-reading app, since I got it as a review copy far too long ago. So it looks like I'll be reading two volumes of this.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #105: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

I am not in the habit of reading play-scripts. I mean, is anyone? Except for actual theatrical directors and actors, obviously. It's not a format that Joe Reader grabs. Is it?

But I read Tom Stoppard's famous first play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead way back in my mis-spent youth -- I think in high school, probably as an adjunct to studying Hamlet, since I was just that kind of weird kid -- and loved it then. So I saw a copy cheaply recently, and grabbed it. And, since I'm doing Book-A-Day, I'm gravitating to all of the weird short books that are on my shelves.

So I read it again, for the first time in probably thirty years. (I did see, and write about, the movie version in the early days of this blog.)

I should not have been surprised that a play from the mid-60s was very stagy and mannered -- as much about the idea of being a play as it was actually a real play that people would enjoy -- but I was, a bit. It's also as much of a riff on Waiting for Godot as it is a riff on Hamlet: if you were pitching it to Hollywood, the log line would be "The Waiting for Godot guys are Hamlet's old school friends!"

Which is to say: reading Rosencrantz can be a lot of work. It's not a play that opens itself up to the reader; it circles, tightly, around Hamlet and the concept of free will, in dialogue that we would have called very Stoppardian if he'd had enough work out by 1967 to let us make the comparison. And the play itself is deliberately chilly, the story of two men whom the title declares to be dead.

Of course, reading any play is an inferior experience to seeing it produced. A play-script is a blueprint: the actual work happens in time, on a stage, to particular people in a particular moment. And Rosencrantz is a brilliant script, a blueprint for a magnificent work. You don't need me to tell you that, but I will, just in case -- I'll join in on the chorus, because the chorus is correct in this case.

See it performed if you can, preferably on a stage. The 1991 movie is a decent alternative if you can't. You do need to know Hamlet and Godot first, obviously. But you should know them anyway, the way you know which hand is left and which is right.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #104: Legion of Super-Heroes: The More Things Change by Paul Levitz and Steve Lightle

There was a point when I was a medium-serious Legion of Super-Heroes fan. I was particularly enthusiastic about the Bierbaum/Giffen series -- that might be when I got into it, or maybe just before that -- but I tracked down the whole long run written by Paul Levitz (back in the days when I read and bought a lot of pamphlet comics) and read it through, luxuriating in the superhero soap-opera and the very, very soft SF.

Remembering that, I grabbed this book when I saw it cheaply. Was the stuff I enjoyed in my early twenties still good? (Well, I don't think I ever had any illusions that the Levitz run was other than decent superhero fluff, even at the time. But I did think it was consistently good for superhero fluff.)

The More Things Change is very middle: it's the second trade paperback collecting the 1985 re-launch of the main Legion series, when DC realized they could print stories on nicer, more-expensive paper for the comic-shop market and reprint it later in the crappy format for plebeians at newsstands. Back in 1985, a re-launch like that didn't necessarily have to shake up the whole world, and it didn't -- Levitz kept on writing the Legion, as he'd been doing for a number of years already, and I don't think even the art team changed substantially.

(By the way, the definitive Levitz-era story is of course The Great Darkness Saga, from 1982. I wrote about it in the middle of a monthly round-up a few years back.)

This book collects issues 7-13 of that 1985 Legion series, mostly penciled by Steve Lightle with several others contributing some pencil art or inking. Legion sometimes got more distinctive artists -- Keith Giffen has a few pages here, and he did a lot more at other times -- but this chunk is very much the mid-80s generic superhero comics look. This is definitely Big Two assembly-line comics: the point was to get another issue out at the same time every month, keep making money, and provide more or less the same thing each time.

And the "thing" for Legion was a mixture of mild teenage angst (less obvious than the obvious contemporary comparison, Chris Claremont's X-Men), vaguely political drama among the Legion itself and the larger world, and a succession of nasty people to fight and defeat (generally pretty easily). The string of stories here shows that mixture at its height -- the fighting-villains stuff is pretty minor, having to fight for page-space with everyone's love problems, choosing-a-leader problems, considering-recruiting-more-members-problems, and older-members-retiring problems.

But that's what the Levitz Legion was about: it was a superhero comic almost entirely swallowed by the non-superheroing aspects of their lives. They still wore wildly infeasible costumes, sure, and they did make sure to call each other by both code names and real names all the time, and they even used their powers (explaining how they worked along the way), but that didn't feel like the most important thing about the Legion.

And the '80s were the very talkiest era of all time in commercial comics, which comes through here. Levitz wasn't as enthusiastic about captions as some of his peers, but his people certainly talk a lot -- but, again, they do need to explain their powers and everyone's multiple names several times an issue, so there's a lot of dialogue to get in.

This is not one of the great comics of all time. It's a decent chunk of a decent run of a better-than-average comic of its time. That time is over thirty years ago now, and there have been tons of equally good comics, and plenty of better ones, before and since. I suspect the main reasons for a book like this are nostalgia and really, intense loyalty to the particular superhero IP. But there are worse reasons for a book to exist, so...why not?

Friday, April 13, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #103: Syllabus by Lynda Barry

This is not a graphic novel. It's not even graphic non-fiction in a narrative form. It's related to Lynda Barry's last few books, What It Is and Picture This, but it's less conventional and concerned with telling a story than those two books were.

Luckily, it has a title that tells us what it is: Syllabus.

Barry has taught courses in storytelling and creativity -- that sounds vague, because they were inter-departmental courses that were about brain science as much as how to draw and write -- for several years, mostly at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This book is something like a blended experience of being in those classes, or perhaps particularly "The Unthinkable Mind" class from spring of 2013. It contains what seem to be Barry's actual handouts and worksheets from that course, along with exercises from the students that year, organized chronologically to cover that whole semester. There are also some pages, especially near the beginning, that set the scene and explain her process and and overall plan for the class -- but, as the book goes on, more and more it is a record of what that class did.

So it's possible for a devoted student to follow most of the instructions here, and make for herself a one-person version of that course. (She couldn't do everything, since there are some exercises where work gets handed around the class, with each person adding something new.)

Syllabus is a much denser book than What It Is and Picture This were: those aimed to entertain while touching on profound ideas, while Syllabus aims to document an entire teaching method and program. It's all related -- Barry's ideas on art and life have been basically the same through the past decade -- but Syllabus is the operationalization of those ideas, if you'll let me descend into bafflegab for a moment.

I frankly was surprised by Syllabus: I wasn't expecting a book so dense and so school-book-y. (Perhaps I should have read the title a few more times! It was not hidden.) I appreciate a lot of Barry's work and enthusiasm, while still fervently believing that I would hate every second of being in a class like this...and not just because I've never liked or been good at drawing. But be aware: this is deeper and denser than her previous work, and is for a more rarefied and self-selected audience of people really interested in the sources of creativity and how to teach stimulating those sources.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #102: Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: 1954 by Mike Mignola, Chris Roberson and various artists

So the big Hellboy story is over -- it's been over longer than most people think, as I argued when I wrote about the second volume of Hellboy in Hell. But Hellboy is still a valuable piece of intellectual property, with a potential movie reboot still kicking around in the background somewhere. So there has to be some Hellboy product coming out on a regular basis, to help keep the lights on at Dark Horse and to keep Mike Mignola busy.

Well, maybe that's too cynical a view of things. Hellboy is an interesting, fun character, and his history contains vast swaths of space and time to throw additional stories into. It's not impossible that Mignola and his collaborators are really, really enthusiastic about all of those possibilities and that Mignola is taking on such a large number of collaborators and doing a whole lot of unrelated one-off stories because that's precisely what the Hellboy universe needs right at this moment. The world is vast; all things are possible. And it's clear that Mignola and team are enjoying what they're doing.

So what we have here is Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: 1954, containing four miscellaneous stories all taking place in that year and all written by Mignola with Chris Roberson, his current major writing collaborator (following John Arcudi). Two of the stories were two-issue mini-series, another was a single issue, and the fourth appeared in a giveaway comic for Free Comic Book Day in 2015.

(Similar volumes covering the years 1952 and 1953 came out previously.)

The four stories are all entirely separate, which is nothing new for Hellboy: even now, probably a majority of the books featuring him are made up of miscellaneous tales of investigating (and then, inevitably, punching to death) some mysterious folkloric thing in some odd corner of the world. The best of the short pure-Mignola stories relied on folklore and atmosphere rather than tying everything into the standard Hellboy mythology, and it's good to see that most of the stories here follow in that vein.

We lead off with a two-parter, "Black Sun," drawn by Stephen Green in the traditional dark and moody style of other-hands Hellboy-universe stories. I tend to think of that look as being codified by Guy Davis in B.P.R.D., but a lot of people (the Fiumara brothers, Duncan Fegredo, Ben Stenbeck, Tyler Crook, James Harren, and even Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba) have worked in that vein on various Hellboy-related stories over the years and done good work. "Black Sun" features both Nazis and flying saucers, and is the most core-mythology of the stories here.

Moodiest (and probably best) is the single-issue story, "The Unreasoning Beast," with art by Patric Reynolds. It has a monkey in it; I probably shouldn't say more than that.

The other two-parter is "Ghost Moon," set in Hong Kong. Brian Churilla draws this one, and I found the style to be brighter and more open than most Hellboy stuff. Some of that may be Dave Stewart's colors, but he colors nearly everything in the Hellboy universe, so it must be a deliberate choice here. This is another story using real-world folklore, but I found it a little pat and obvious.

And last is the shortest piece, "The Mirror," drawn by Richard Corben. Corben's grotesques work pretty well for Hellboy, though I personally like his work best in small doses. This is more a vignette than a story, but it's a nice vignette.

We all know that this book exists because a lot of us like Hellboy and want to keep reading stories about Hellboy, even when there's no compelling in-story reason for those stories to continue. If that describes you, you'll probably like this book: it does that Hellboy thing, in the extended-universe manner, and does it pretty well. But if you haven't gotten into the Hellboy thing yet, go back to the pure Mignola stuff and start there.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #101: Aama, Vol. 3: The Desert of Mirrors by Frederik Peeters

I don't know if it's the Moebius influence, or something inherent to French SF comics, but Aama is hurtling headlong towards those old questions of transcendence and identity, with a gigantic unknowable biological system (partly or entirely built by people, but now out of their control) providing both instant death in thrillingly unique and horrible ways and also transformative mental experiences that one expects will culminate into someone becoming The Incal or some such thing.

(I may be being a tad reductive here. Please adjust your assumptions accordingly.)

That's where we are with Aama, Vol. 3: The Desert of Mirrors, hitting the three-quarters mark of this soft SF planetary opera by Frederik Peeters. (See my review of the second volume, The Invisible Throng; I covered the first one in a very short way during one of my review bankruptcies.)

This is book three of a four-book series -- if you're confused by my first three paragraphs, it's only to be expected. Aama is soft SF as well, full of unlikely biology and lots of things that probably violate at least one of the laws of thermodynamics. So any explanations will be believable in as much as you're satisfied with a certain lack of rigor in the flying-slipstick category and with the nature of the Big Questions underlying Peeters' story.

This time out, we get the aftermath of the horrific ending of Invisible Throng, and finally circle back to the beginning of the first book, The Smell of Warm Dust, surprising those of us (well, me, at least) who had forgotten entirely that the main story was a very extended flashback. We also learn more about the Muy-Tang Corporation, which set up this experiment -- and, if you know anything about corporations in science fiction stories, you won't be expecting them to turn out to be honest and true and to have the best interests of humanity in mind. (I am also struck, yet again, at how French comics will casually kill off what seem to be central characters and not look back. That's unusual for comics, where every character is assumed to be an IP that everyone hopes will be a movie one day.)

Peeters has to wrap this all up in one more book, which seems entirely possible -- the end of this book is hurtling towards a conclusion, so the question is whether there's as much as ninety pages of comics left to tell that ending. I may not entirely buy the science here, but it's a good story, and Peeters is handling the transcendence/connection stuff better than a number of other comics-makers I've seen (Moebius and/or Jodorowski, for example) -- and by "better," I mean "in a way that doesn't make me complain out loud."


So: Aama is still neat and quirky and full of sudden violence and sudden insight and revealing character moments. Given that the series won the Best Series award at the Angouleme festival in 2015, I suspect Peeters kept that up for the final book...which I now have to find.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #100: The Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow

People will tell you that The Ghost in the Shell is a single story, about a cyborg cop in a complex future Japan and her pursuit of a mysterious AI called The Puppeteer. They are lying to you.

Oh, that thread is here, and the very last installment here sees the conclusion of that story. It's a plausible lie, like all the best ones.

But Ghost in the Shell is three hundred and fifty pages of comics, across eleven long chapters, and most of those chapters are individual episodes of our heroine murdering lots of people because the government tells her to. Puppeteer comes in during one of those murder sprees earlier in the book, and then returns in the aftermath of yet another kill-that-guy mission for something like an ending.

There is a lot of pseudo-philosophical talk about brains and bodies, and a whole lot of skiffy bafflegab -- which I think was not translated as crisply and clearly as it should have been -- about the cyberpunk details of the technology here. But that's not nearly as unique as Ghost's boosters pretend it is -- or as coherent.

Of course, we do have to remember that Ghost started serialization in 1989 and was collected in 1991 -- cyberpunk wasn't new at that point, true (in fact, I think "Vincent Omniveritas" had declared it dead several years before), but Ghost showed that cyberpunk was going global and infiltrating new media. If you think of it as an '80s cyberpunk comic, Ghost is pretty good -- it has a complex, lived-in world, lots of interesting technology turned to criminal and/or destructive purposes, and a deeply jaundiced view of anyone in power. Masamune Shirow might have been working on the other side of the world, in a different language, and a different medium than the first wave of cyberpunks, but he could see what was important in that mode and turn it into the stories he wanted to tell.

The street finds its own use for things, as they say.

In this case, it's the story of a cyborg mass-murderess, who is our heroine because she kills people the government aims her at, and we still thought that was good enough in the '80s. (She does get in trouble near the end for her bloody work, but only because she was unfortunate enough to do it where a camera could see it -- the killing itself is never questioned for a second, by anyone in the book.)

As you might guess, I found it a lot to swallow. Oh, not that a government would have a secret assassin -- that's traditional enough in this kind of story. Maybe a bit that she's part of a big squad with a code number ending in nine -- explicitly shown to be one of a series of similar teams with mostly non-overlapping opportunities for mass murder  -- which implies a level of bloodthirstiness that seems unlikely to be sustained for very long, even in a country as full of targets as Japan. Mostly because Major Motoko Kusanagi never really becomes a person: she's a collection of standard manga reactions and poses, there to be in the middle of the action and do Cool Stuff. Her entire personality is "dangerous sexy manga chick."

Again, 1989 was another world -- Japan doubly so, manga triply so. But, coming to Ghost in the Shell now, it does not look terribly impressive.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #99: The Playmate Book by Gretchen Edgren

Some books entomb an entire era. It's even better when they were published at exactly the right moment, so a later reader can see how something was just before it changed entirely. I have one such book today.

The Playmate Book, which was written, compiled, and/or edited by longtime Playboy Senior Editor Gretchen Edgren, was published in late 1996, compiling the faces and figures and details of all of the five-hundred-plus attractive young women who had appeared as the centerfolds of that magazine up through the end of '96.

And, yes, 1995-1996 was when the modern Internet -- which we called the World Wide Web back then, to differentiate it from gopher and email and other kinds of protocols -- exploded onto the scene and started to change and destroy both all existing content businesses and the way Americans learned about sex.

(Also see my review of Erotic Photography for a history lesson of How We Used To Find Porn.)

Now, Playboy's first issue was in December of 1953, so this book missed the fortieth anniversary by about three years and was shy of the forty-fifth by another two. (It looks like there was a revised edition a decade or so later, possibly connected to the fiftieth anniversary. But all editions of this seem to be out of print now...well, or maybe just hidden by Amazon for "adult content.") It's hard to say why the forty-third anniversary was the one that got the commemorative book, but I like to think that somewhere deep in the back of someone's mind was the unformed suspicion that this Internet thing was going to destroy Playboy's ability to make boatloads of money from taking pictures of attractive naked young women, so they might as well milk it while they could.

This is a big, coffee-table style book, with a white cover that shows all scratches, dings, and scuffs. (My copy is in pretty good shape, but I did have it for twenty random years before finally looking at it.) Inside are nearly four hundred pages, with at least one picture of each of those five-hundred-and-fourteen women, often but not always their centerfolds. Particularly notable women -- the Playmates of the Year, media stars like Marilyn Monroe and Pamela Anderson, and so on -- get more space, up to two full spreads for Dorothy Stratten and a few others.

As usual with official Playboy publications, everyone is happy and friendly and got along perfectly well, even if a huge proportion of them ended up sleeping with Hugh Hefner. (And there's not a hint that doing so might have been an unspoken prerequisite for getting into the centerfold.) But, honestly, there's only room for one fairly short paragraph for most of these women, so it's no surprise that each blurb just hits the high points: what was she doing before Playboy, notable professional modeling/acting credits, one weird fact, and what was she doing in 1996. Some of the women managed to get lost between their initial appearance and 1996; I bet the Internet would make compiling a similar book easier these days, since everyone is findable now.

The women with bigger careers or more notable events have more words as well as more pictures, of course. And there are sidebars scattered throughout, by Hefner, photographers like Pompeo Posar and Ken Marcus, and Playboy editors like Marilyn Grabowski -- roughly a sidebar for every third or fourth woman, probably in cases where someone had an anecdote to share or an interesting memory of that woman.

(I am assiduously using the word "woman" here, since I am a Vassar grad. The book itself prefers "girl" throughout.)

This is an attractively designed and produced book full of well-photographed very attractive women (across the span of the back half of the twentieth century) not wearing much at all, and seemingly happy to show off all their charms. But pictures of every single one of these women -- in great profusion, in various sizes and from various eras of their careers -- are now as close to you as the search box at the top of your browser. This is still a nice artifact, and a fun way to waste some time, but the world has moved on: books and magazines are no longer the way we look at pictures of attractive naked people.

I don't know if that was a sad thing or a happy thing: we all got more naked people than we knew what to do with, while an industry fell apart and an army of former smut-merchants were forced to find other work. I do know than in the vaguely creepy capitalist category, I much prefer Hefner to Zuckerberg, for whatever that's worth.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/7/18

No good deed goes unpunished.

My Book-A-Day engine has been running pretty well so far this year, but I belatedly realized that every prior time I did Book-A-Day, I had a mechanism sending me free books regularly. (Either I was at the SFBC, where there were shelves of random books available for the taking, or I was getting a lot of publicity titles since I actually did something with them once in a while.) This time around, I've got none of that, and my unread shelves -- at least the comics portion, the ones that can be read easily in a day -- is beginning to dwindle. (Well, I've still got parts of three shelves, but there's a lot of multi-book series that I want to write about together, and each of those takes planning so it doesn't blow up my schedule.)

Luckily, there's always a backup plan. Books are not a scarce commodity in the modern world.

I put through a lot of holds through my local library about two weeks ago, and many of them came through in the past few days -- enough to keep me going for another two weeks. (Through...roughly the tenth of May. Hmm. Still a lot of year to go....)

And these are those library books, which should show up in the rapacious maw of Book-A-Day quite soon:

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 1 by Herge -- a nice little hardcover collecting three of the Tintin books. My guess is that it's the first three, from the volume number, but it might not be so. I've never read any Herge, so I thought I might as well use Book-A-Day as an excuse.

Voices in the Dark, a graphic novel by Ulli Lust adapted from the novel by Marcel Beyer -- I liked Lust's autobiographical Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, so I figured I'd check out this odder project of hers. I believe this was actually created earlier than Today.

Tank Girl, Vol. 1 by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin -- I'm pretty sure I had this book, or an earlier incarnation of it, and I definitely had the early-90s Tank Girl comics from before Hewlitt realized making rock 'n' roll was more fun and lucrative than making comics. But I haven't read it in ages, so why not check in again?

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 4: I Kissed a Squirrel and I Liked It by Ryan North and Erica Henderson -- This is a fun series, and I'll keep reading it as long as I can get it from libraries. (See my recent post on Vol. 3, which links back to the first two.)

Astro City: The Dark Age, Vol. 1: Brothers and Other Strangers by Kurt Busiek and Brent Eric Anderson -- I wandered away from this "Silver Age done right" superhero series sometime over the past decade or so, which is why I'm only now getting to this 2008 collection. I'm not entirely in sympathy to the impulse here, but doing versions of iconic superhero characters and stories is a huge draw for a big segment of American comics, so I take a look at that stuff regularly to try to figure out what the deal is.

Free Country by a dozen or so people led by Neil Gaiman -- Twenty years or so ago, everything in corporate comics had to be an event. (Not all that different from now, then!) The Vertigo "line" at DC was actually a bunch of entirely separate comics with a rough shared audience and stance, but they had to have a big Event in their annuals (which they also had to have) in 1993. It was called The Children's Crusade, and there were bookend standalone comics that the various individual comics' annuals slotted in between, more or less. It was not the most successful experiment. After a couple of decades, though, someone at DC realized they had a couple of issues written or co-written by Gaiman that were sitting uncollected and not making them any money. So they commissioned a new team (Toby Litt and Peter Gross) to create a new middle, and then put out the end product as a book with a new Gaiman introduction. I can't imagine it all comes together well, but I'm fascinated to see just how jury-rigged and bizarre it is.

Valerian: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1 by Pierre Christin and Jean-Clauide Mezieres -- I didn't see the recent movie (along with a lot of other people), but it reminded me this series of adventure comics from France existed, and that I hadn't read any of them. Movies are opportunities to publish stuff, so I'm happy to see this exists, and I'll see what these stories are actually like. It's a shame that Laureline has entirely lost cover billing, though.

The Hospital Suite by John Porcellino -- Porcellino is one of the great minimalists of comics, but I've never quite clicked with his work as much as I keep thinking I should. (I looked at his book Piece of My Heart back in the 2010 Book-A-Day run.) But I do like his quiet comics, when I remember to look for them. And I did this time.

The Abominable Mr. Seabrook by Joe Ollmann -- The non-fictional account of a somewhat famous (at least at the time) hard-drinking and adventurous reporter in the early 20th century. I'd never heard of him, but that doesn't mean much.

Boundless by Jillian Tamaki -- Jillian Tamaki is the creator behind Supermutant Magic Academy and one-half of the Tamaki cousins team of Skim and This One Summer. So I have no idea what this is, and I want it anyway: it's her new book. (Takes a quick look.) Original graphic novel, as far as I can tell -- cool.

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 5: Super Famous by G. Willow Wilson and more artists than usual -- This is a book I keep trying to like, and not quite succeeding at the level I hope I will. (I started my post on Vol. 4 with "This book pissed me off," for example.) I keep trying, since I think the things that annoy me aren't the fault of the creators, and things I do like are because of the creators. But it's a hell of way to read a comic, man. Marvel has a lot to answer for.

Lumberjanes, Vol. 3: A Terrible Plan by Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, and Carolyn Nowak -- I come to this series only occasionally, since I'm the wrong reader for it in so many ways. But I like Noelle Stevenson's work, and this is what she's doing these days, so I dive in when I can. It's about teen girls being friends -- what could be wrong with that? (See my post on Vol. 2 for more of me explaining more of this stuff.)

Going Into Town by Roz Chast -- Chast was a city kid who raised suburban kids. She made this book to explain New York to them...even though I think they're all grown up and have figured it out by now (if they're going to). I've never been a city kid, but I love NYC and I love Chast's work.

Tenements, Towers & Trash by Julia Wertz -- The onetime Fart Party cartoonist turned into an urban explorer and chronicler, dropping this big, weighty book last year. (Props to Johanna Draper Carlson of Comics Worth Reading, who reminded me it existed after I wrote about the big Fart Party compendium in February.)