Friday, March 23, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #82: Nicolas by Pascal Girard

Early success is the most dangerous kind. Great success for something you did quickly can be even worse. When the two are combined...well, it's hard for your career to be other than disappointing afterward.

Nicolas wasn't Pascal Girard's first comics work, or first book -- but it was really close, on both counts. And it's pretty clear I wasn't the only one really impressed by this short book -- it was widely praised for its raw honesty and authentic grief at the time.

Girard has an introduction in this expanded 2016 edition of Nicolas about how it came to be and how it affected him. And his other memoirs -- I've seen Reunion and Petty Theft; there may be others still lurking in Quebecois French I don't know of -- show other sides of Girard, of the man who lived through this as a boy. I don't think it's something you get over.

Nicolas was Girard's younger brother. Girard was born in 1981, and, around 1990, when Girard was nine and Nicolas was five, Nicolas died. Girard didn't know what killed him for a while -- he eventually learned it was lactic acidosis, which was probably just as meaningful to him then as it is to you or me right now. It's two medical words, technical terms, that mean "your kid brother is dead."

Nicolas, the original book, is bookended by scenes with Nicolas alive. The two boys are playing with a tape recorder, making Ghostbusters jokes. I have to imagine that tape still exists. I have to imagine Girard listening to it, years later, when about to make this book. But I can't imagine what that must feel like.

Girard says, in that new introduction, that he wanted to do a quick book, inspired by Jeffrey Brown. That he planned it out a bit, writing some stories and memories in a notebook. But that the comics pages themselves, one or two quick borderless panels to a page, came out over a long weekend. Sometimes strong material is like that: it needs to come out, and forces its way onto the page.

This new edition of Nicolas includes the original book, that new introduction, and a comics afterword -- twenty-five pages about Girard in the years since Nicolas was published. As Girard says in his introduction, those pages ended up being about Girard's other brother, Joel. The one even younger than Nicolas, the one who didn't die. The one that grown-up Girard mostly ignores, even when they live in the same city.

Girard, as always, is unsparing of his own flaws and foibles -- his comics sometimes feel like penance on his part, as he drags his worst self out for self-ridicule and as the butt of every joke. Nicolas, maybe, explains why, or points to a possible reason. It's still the strongest comics work I've seen from Girard, for all its rawness, for all it was done quickly by a novice creator. Some stories need to be told, and this one made Girard tell it brilliantly.

Quote of the Week

"They call me the greatest
'Cause I'm not very good
And they're being sarcastic."
 - The Greatest, They Might Be Giants

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #81: I Am Not Okay With This by Charles Forsman

Sydney is fifteen. She's skinnier than she wants to be, she's annoyed at best by school, and confused by the fact that she's attracted to both men and women. So far, she's like any other teenager -- unhappy in her body and life, and not seeing any way to get away from any of the things she hates.

And she thinks she has a psychic power that she can use to hurt other people.

(Well, OK -- "thinks" is me weasel-wording it. We see her do it. We know it's true.)

In a healthy world, Sydney would have support from friends and family, maybe even teachers and guidance counselors at school. But she doesn't really have friends; just a couple of people who she ends up having sex with, out of proximity as much as anything else. Her kid brother annoys her, her mother ten times more so, and her father is dead. We don't see her interact with any teachers. And her guidance counselor suggests that Sydney keep a journal -- which becomes this book -- but doesn't otherwise help her out.

So Sydney is alone with herself, with her dark anger and the things that anger can do. I would not be okay with that -- none of us would. But we don't have to live with it: Sydney does.

I Am Not Okay With This collects a series of self-published minicomics by Charles Forsman. It contains Sydney's full story. She has more reason for teen angst than most people, and fewer resources for dealing with it. She's damaged in ways that she can't ask for help about, and subject to a power or force that threatens to overpower her, especially when she's angry or aroused.

Forsman takes her story to the extremes inherent in his set-up: he doesn't flinch or hesitate. It is almost unbearably sad. Almost.

I haven't seen Forsman's work before: this is impressive. It's entirely within Sydney's head, entirely focused on how she sees the world. His art is cartoony in a nearly '30s style, with big noses and gangly limbs. And he can tell a story, following it exactly where it needs to go. I'll have to see what other stories he's told, or will tell.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #80: Jack Staff, Vol. 2: Soldiers by Paul Grist and Phil Elliott

It was just a little over a month ago that I covered Jack Staff Vol. 1 here, a decade after it was published. I'm accelerating a bit now, getting to 2010's second volume with what passes for blinding speed around here.

Jack Staff, Vol. 2: Soldiers sees Paul Grist's superhero universe transformed into full color with the addition of Phil Elliott as colorist to the team, and possibly some increased distribution from a then-new publishing management with Image. (The first series of Jack Staff came out from Grist's own Dancing Elephant Press.) Otherwise, this is still an all-Paul Grist production: he writes and draws and (I'm pretty sure) letters as well.

Since this was the big relaunch, it needed to stand on its own. Traditionally, that's the time to trot out a retelling of the origin, but Grist hadn't revealed that yet -- I'm not sure if he has even now, actually, and I hope he hasn't. So, instead, we get a less-deep flashback: the story of the case that sent Jack Staff into retirement "twenty years ago" -- roughly the late '80s, given when the Jack Staff series started.

Jack, to refresh your memory, is a really long-lived -- we don't know how long, but he's looked young and exactly the same since WW II, at least -- who is a mid-level brick. In this book, we learn a little more about what he can do, but he's basically a strong guy with a big stick and occasional glowy hands. He was, as the cover claims, Britain's greatest hero, though he seems to spend all of his time hanging about a minor provincial city called Castletown. (Maybe that's why Britain did fine for twenty years without him.)

Anyway, Soldiers is told in a complicated flashback structure, jumping between twenty years ago and "now," sometimes on the same page, in a style I'm coming to think Grist particularly likes. (And I'm completely in sync with him: if you're telling a story about big guys punching each other for pages on end, it definitely helps to do something to mix that up and make it more interesting.) So Soldiers bounces back and forth in time like a yo-yo, also bouncing around the large cast almost as much as the stories in the first book did. (Becky Burdock, {Spoiler} Reporter gets less obvious on-page time here, but there are some new superheroes, from the '60s and '80s.)

The big fight scene twenty years ago was between Jack and Hurricane, the British Army's secret and greatest weapon, who of course is a Hulk-ish guy with an anger problem and an exceptionally limited vocabulary. In between bits of that fight, there's a more complicated plot going on in the present day, plus some military machinations back twenty years ago. It may sound confusing, but on the page it's always entirely clear who is doing what when and to whom.

There is a lot of talking in between the fighting, and plenty of fighting in the modern day as well. This is a superhero comic, after all.

Grist tells a zippy story here, and his art is dynamic and fun -- he still uses a lot of black here (as he did in the early Jack Staff stories, as well as Kane), but the addition of color does make the whole thing that much more superhero-y.

Nobody needs any more superhero comics, but this is a good one, unencumbered by any stupid continuity and entirely owned by the guy that thought it up. If you need superheroes in your life, this is the kind to have.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #79: Nat Turner by Kyle Baker

I am in great danger of dancing about architecture here, so I'll acknowledge it, first, and then try to move on.

Nat Turner is a nearly wordless graphic novel: it contains only narration taken from The Confessions of Nat Turner (a contemporary account), and some sound effects. All of the characters in it are silent as we see them -- for dramatic effect or because the vast majority of them were silenced at the time and by history, you can decide for yourself. So what I'm here to do is use words to talk about a story told only in pictures.

"Dancing about architecture," as I said.

Nat Turner was written and drawn by Kyle Baker, and originally self-published by him as four individual comics. The book edition came from Abrams exactly a decade ago, in 2008. The copy I have in my hand has a slightly different cover than the one I've found online: there's only a light spattering of blood drops over the word "Turner" and down the left side, connecting to a red-patterned spine and back cover. I light the brightness and visual metaphor of the version shown here, but maybe the bookstores of America balked at so much blood.

Nat Turner [1] was born into slavery in Virginia in 1800. His father is believed to have run away and escaped from slavery when Nat was very young. Nat was very intelligent, and self-taught as much as he could, learning to read on his own and devouring every book he could. He led a rebellion of local slaves in 1831, which had some immediate success but was quickly suppressed. And, of course, he was tried and killed soon afterward. (Depending on how cynical you are, it can be counted a victory that a black man in 1831 Virginia was actually tried and found guilty before he was killed by white people.) Those are the bare facts.

Baker takes that story and extends it, beginning with Nat's mother, captured by slavers in Africa and shipped to America. That was the first issue; the second covers Nat's youth, growth to manhood, and religious awakening. (Like so many others who led massacres, Nat thought God talked to him and made him for a special destiny. Unlike most of them, we still have sympathy for Nat.)  The third issue has the events of the rebellion, in all of their bloody, chaotic fury. And the fourth is the aftermath: Nat's hanging and Baker's notes and afterword.

Baker's art is dark and moody, a chiaroscuro of browns and blacks. The faces are expressive and with just an occasional touch of cartooniness -- much more realistic than most of his work. His choice of images and panel-to-panel storytelling is superb, and the whole thing -- even told originally across four issues -- is entirely unified. Nat Turner has a massive moral and imagistic power, even to this white guy whose ancestors were entirely Northerners.

I don't see Nat Turner listed in those standard compilations of the "Best Modern Graphic Novels" much -- maybe because it's too raw, too shocking. It should be; it does stand that comparison and should be in that company. And it's a good reminder to oppressors everywhere -- even if they don't think themselves oppressors, even if they think they're the ones oppressed -- that when there are people under you with no way out and no recourse, they will rise up eventually, and you may not survive the experience.

[1] "Turner" was the family name of Nat's owners. It's not clear to me if he ever used a second name while alive, or if that was a luxury held by white people.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #78: Batman: The Dark Knight: Master Race by Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson

I was hoping for crazy old man Frank Miller yelling at clouds (or people browner than himself), but DC Comics had wised up between 2001's The Dark Knight Strikes Again and this series in 2016, and so saddled Miller with Brian Azzarello for a co-writer and Andy Kubert as a replacement penciller. (They did bring back Klaus Janson, who inked Miller for the original Dark Knight Returns back in 1986.)

So what we got, instead of another run at the craziness of DKII, was a rehash of Grant Morrison's first couple of JLA stories, with an older, grumpier Batman and more Miller-ian annoying teen slang in tiny little boxes all over the pages. It's more coherent and professional than what I was expected, but that's not precisely an improvement. Crazy and genuine trumps professional and dull every day of the week.

In case that was confusing, let me explain: Miller wrote and drew (inked by Klaus Janson, colored by Lynn Varley) Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 -- I can't believe you haven't heard of it -- with a grumpy retired fiftyish Batman brought back to deal with an even more crapsack than usual Gotham City and a showdown with the Joker. It was dense, stylish, "adult" -- one of the major examples for the "comics are growing up!" stories of the late-80s, along with Watchmen. Fifteen years later, Miller and Varley came back to Dark Knight for an ugly (artistically, morally, and story-wise) sequel that showed mostly that Miller had discovered a Spinal Tap-style dial on his art, and had cranked that sucker up to about twenty.

Fifteen more years passed, and someone had the idea to make Dark Knight a trilogy - because every artistic work constantly aspires to the condition of trilogy. The result was Batman: The Dark Knight: Master Race. (See above; start over if you have to.)

Those of us who enjoy trainwrecks delighted in the title. Miller has been unnervingly sympathetic to fascism in his works for the last two decades or so, and this looked like he was finally going all-in. But, sadly, it turned out to be a bait-and-switch. The Master Race here are Kryptonians, some random crazy religious sect from the bottled city of Kandor, who vaguely trick the Atom into growing them large and setting them free. (As with so much late Miller, the plot does not make as much sense as one would hope.)

The DC Universe has been attacked by armies with Superman's powers many times -- I think "The Great Darkness Saga" in Legion of Super-Heroes was the first, but I could have missed one -- so this was not exactly a shocking new idea. And Batman doesn't fight these villains alone, which at least would have been thematically appropriate for the series. No, our man Bats (who still don't shiv) has to bring back Superman, of course, and Wonder Woman gets involved, and The Flash, and Aquaman, and Green Lantern...and, yes, it does feel like that Grant Morrison White Martians story all over again, only with a Batman who swears more and prepares less.

Frankly, Master Race feels less like the third Dark Knight book and more like a random pointless Elseworlds story. What is Batman was an old man when Kryptonians attacked? Well, he'd still win!

Kubert and Janson make serviceable pictures for this story, and those pictures look a little bit like old-school Miller, sometimes, if you squint. There are interstitial stories by other artists, including Miller himself, which feel like they're almost unnecessary, but not quite. One assumes Azzarello is primarily responsible for the story -- since Miller would have done something more exciting, even if it was offensive or stupid -- and so one gives him a golf clap as well. But, all in all, this is a thing that didn't need to exist at all, and only just barely does exist. It's an echo of so many other more distinctive things that it's a wonder you can look directly at it.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/17/18

I'm back again, to list whatever new books wandered into my house over the past week. This time out, I have just one book, which came via old-fashioned publicity channels.

Black and White Ball is the 27th novel about Detroit PI Amos Walker, by Loren D. Estleman and published by Forge in hardcover on March 28th. Back in the early days of this blog, one of my first reading projects here was HELP -- a horribly tortured acronym for "Hornswoggler's Estleman Loren Project" -- under which moniker I read ten of the earlier books in this series. (There only were about 18-20 of them then; Estleman has been putting them out annually recently.)

This time out, Walker meets another one of Estleman's series characters, hit man Peter Macklin -- this, presumably, either because it was a fun idea or to try to get fans of both series to buy the book. I keep looking at my accumulation of Walker novels and thinking it's time to run through another big clump, but I haven't pulled the trigger yet -- maybe this one will be enough to get me to do that.

This is a strong traditional-PI series, with the requisite man who walks down the dark streets to do what has to be done; I've enjoyed all of the books I've read by Estleman.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #77: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 3: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now by Ryan North and Erica Henderson

Doreen Green is still cute, still a bit chunky, still indomitable, and still the most upbeat character in comics. But she's now a second-year student in Computer Science at Empire State U -- which state is weirdly referred to as a "second-year alum" more than once -- which means she's that much closer to actually being able to create {insert technical thing that I don't really understand here}.

The "big" change in her status (oh, she's also a New Avenger, which is mentioned in the first issue and ignored otherwise) is because this third collection starts up what was in late 2015 a new series of comics about Doreen, aka Squirrel Girl, after she was involved in whatever crisis was going on that summer. (I think it was the one where all mutants died, since there was a fourth-wall-leaning reference to her very definitely not being a mutant of any kind. But who can keep track of which money-grubbing Marvel Secret House Civil Infinity Age of Death Fear Chaos Shadow happened when?) It was the second issue #1 that year for Squirrel Girl, which game creators Ryan North and Erica Henderson mock here, but not so much as to piss off their Marvel overlords.

Anyway, it's The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 3: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now. Given the way Marvel keeps books in print, it's probably impossible to find now.

It starts out with a done-in-one story re-introducing Doreen and her supporting cast -- who knows! maybe there's a substantial comic-shop-going audience that missed the first first issue that year! hope springs eternal! -- and then dives into a longer story involving Doctor Doom, time travel, and fashions of the early 1960s. Along the way, there are lots of pseudo-alt-text comments at the bottom of the pages by writer North and extensive letter-column pages with responses from both North and Henderson. (Do most comics reprint letter columns these days? Is that a thing? Because it's nice that people like the comics and send in pictures of themselves as Squirrel Girl, but it's kind of a distraction from the actual story here.)

Reader, Marvel did not have to change the title to The Only Beaten That One Time Squirrel Girl after this volume. But you knew that already, if you know anything about how comics work. It's a lot like the first two collections -- see my posts on volume one and volume two, if you have some time to waste -- showing that the relaunch was entirely pointless. This is sad, but reinforces what I already believe about big corporate comics, so it makes me Schadenfreudenly happy. If you think comics about a superhero with a great attitude, a realistic body, buck teeth, and the proportional whatever of a squirrel would also make you happy, for whatever specific reason, I think you're probably right. You might as well try it.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #76: The Soddyssey and The Werewolf of New York by Batton Lash

I'm not a lawyer. But I'm a lot more familiar with lawyers these days, having spent the last three years working with a bunch of them (including more "recovering lawyers" than one would expect) and marketing things to lawyers all day every day. So maybe this time I came back to Batton Lash's long-running "Supernatural Law" comics series with just a bit more understanding of who he's talking about and what some of the jokes mean.

(The supernatural side of Supernatural Law is much simpler: Lash's bedrock sense of the supernatural is pretty much that of monster movies from the B&W era, all Draculas, Frankensteins, and Wolfmen. There are no hot-to-trot young women with lower-back tattoos and complicated love lives, no modern wizards, no elves hidden in plain sight, no unexpected Grail quests. Actually, given that Lash isn't a lawyer himself, his take on both sides of the equation come from similar places: general cultural knowledge. It's just that lawyers are more common in everyday life and more apt to have complained to Lash about perceived slights.)

I read Supernatural Law back when it ran in CBG as Wolff & Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre -- yes, I am old -- and I think I used to read it in floppy-comics form through the '90s and early '00s, too. (I gave up on floppies about a decade ago, and lost twenty-five years of accumulated comics in my 2011 flood, so I can't check.) But, like everything else in comics, Lash has been moving his creations into book and webcomic form, since that's where the readers are these days. (Some of the comics used to be available at, but there's just a single "cover" image there now.)

There were two Supernatural Law collections sitting on my shelf, for longer than they should have been: The Soddyssey and Other Tales of Supernatural Law and The Werewolf of New York. Since I'm doing Book-A-Day this year, I'm running through books more quickly and actually clearing out those shelves. (Stop me before I turn into an infomercial.)

Soddyssey collected issues 9-16 of the comics series -- which I think I vaguely recognized from reading in the '90s -- while Werewolf was a brand-new graphic novel created for book publication and funded by a Kickstarter campaign a few years back. But they're both the same kind of thing: stories about supernatural creatures in legal trouble, told mildly tongue-in-cheek but with realistic legal outcomes. Soddyssey has several stories; Werewolf one. But Lash was telling a soap-opera-style story to begin with, full of life and romantic complications for his series heroes and their supporting cast, and that continues throughout, even as one case ends and another starts.

Alanna Wolf and Jeff Byrd are the principals of a small law firm, one that concentrates not on a particular area of law -- though they do end up involved in litigation more often that not, since that spells "law" to a non-legal audience -- but on a particular kind of client. One might wonder how all of these diverse creatures know to make their way to Wolff & Byrd, or how likely it is that they all have legal troubles in a state where those two are barred, but that's the premise. We'll be here all day if we start to question premises.

Supernatural Law always felt old-fashioned to me, in the best way, as if it should have been a daily-comics strip like The Heart of Juliet Jones or Mary Worth -- something more culturally central than it really was. These two collections give me that same sense: Wolff & Byrd do the kind of law you'd see on TV fifty years ago. They're not brokering the merger of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, or negotiating the transfer of IP from a banshee to a hot new pop star, or handling the import paperwork on a half-ton of grave dirt. They're filing briefs, traipsing back and forth to court to plead in front of a judge, and counseling their current client to keep his mouth shut. (Always good advice, from any lawyer to any client.) It's the kind of law you recognize, even if you don't know anything about law.

These are fun stories about that kind of law, with some inventive twists on the kind of supernatural creatures you know the same way. Creator Batton Lash has been doing this, off and on, for forty years, and he makes it all smoothly entertaining.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #75: The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan

I always say that I don't like or read horror stories, which means I'm pretty much required to make the case that this is not a horror story.

Well, I can't do that: The Night Country is a horror story. It's a literary story too, or maybe more so, but it's definitely horror. And maybe the fact that Stewart O'Nan uses horrific elements so well is equally responsible for why I think he's one of our very best writers and why I still don't get to his books except every few years.

(Possible objections: I seem to focus on the most horrific of his books, which is probably true. But I prefer to think that I like genre elements in my literary fiction, and horror is the genre element O'Nan works with.)

It's about fifteen years ago -- The Night Country was published in 2003. It's Halloween, in the small town of Avon, Connecticut. One year ago, five teens were in a horrific crash on Halloween night, which has haunted the town, and especially the policeman, Brooks, who was chasing them at the time.

One of the teens tells us the story. His name is Marco. He died in the crash. Also dead is Toe (real name Chris, the driver) and Danielle, the three of them called over and over again all around Avon as people remember them. But they can't touch the real world; can't affect anything.

Tim was Danielle's boyfriend. He survived the crash unscathed -- physically. And his friend Kyle survived with massive head trauma, turning him into a simpler teen, a quieter teen, a more childlike teen. (The ghost of who Kyle used to be also lurks around The Night Country, but he's not with Marco, Toe, and Danielle. They're as mystified by him as the reader.)

The Night Country takes place over just over twenty-four hours, from just before midnight on Mischief Night (or Goosey Night, as we call it in my neck of the woods) to the anniversary of the crash. The living characters are Brooks and Tim and Kyle, Kyle's parents and two dim admirers of Toe. The dead characters are just as important -- and, again, our narrator is one of them.

This is a novel of ghosts and hauntings - literal and figurative. It's a horror novel and a literary novel. It's a tragedy: one in which the tragic end has already happened, and we're just waiting for the bodies to fall. It's brilliant and compelling and beautifully written and pitch-black. It has amazing sentences and awesome passages -- the entire first chapter is a tour de force. If horror was like this more often, I'd read a lot more of it.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #74: The Best American Comics, 2015 and 2016, edited by Jonathan Lethem and Roz Chast

A couple of weeks ago (if I'm looking at the written-but-unpublished buffer correctly) I wrote about the Jeff Smith-edited Best American Comics 2013, and talked about "the usual suspects" and how that annual book could be counted on to give a general view of the comics field any year, and recommended any annual volume to any reader.

This is because I'd forgotten how radically they can vary.

Now, the series editor did also change between 2013 and 2015 -- Bill Kartalopolous took over from Jessica Abel and Matt Madden with the 2014 Scott McCloud-edited book -- but I think the guest editor is the biggest piece of the puzzle. A guest editor who comes out of a certain wing of comics will tend to know and enjoy that world -- and learn to love other things during the editing, sure, but essential tastes don't change that much that quickly. When a guest editor is chosen who isn't from any specific wing of comics, because he's from an only loosely connected field, then it's anyone's guess where he'll come down.

It's not true that comics always comes down to a battle between Story and Art. At their best, comics use both brilliantly, and meld the two inescapable together into one visual storytelling thing. But, if it were true, Jonathan Lethem would be firmly on the Art side, and I would just as firmly on the Story side. (Roz Chast, from a wing of comics that doesn't show up much in this context -- the dwindling world of magazine single panels -- seems to be firmly on the cartooning side, which is both and neither.)

But I should introduce the books before I go any further. This series has been coming out for a little more than ten years now, with three different series editors and a new guest editor each year. The series editor tries to see "everything" eligible -- comics by cartoonists and teams either currently resident in North America or from here -- and passes on about a hundred stories/books/projects to the guest editor, who culls a final list from that and his/her own reading. And then the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, has to try to get the rights to reprint those, which doesn't always happen. (The Lethem volume seems to have lost one story to lawyers in general -- too close to someone else's IP -- and another story that the creator wouldn't allow to be reprinted. That's how it happens with Best of the Year books, even if the dirty laundry only rarely makes it out where the audience can see.) Houghton Mifflin has been doing "Best American" books for a century, starting with Best American Short Stories and proliferating more and more over the last three decades.

Best American Comics 2015 was edited by novelist and occasional comics writer (Omega the Unknown) Jonathan Lethem, who I met briefly at a SFWA reception a million years ago, back when he was a SF writer and I was a SF editor. Roz Chast edited Best American Comics 2016; she's been a New Yorker mainstay for several decades and has committed graphic memoir with Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

As I think back on it, Best American Comics does occasionally dive into the aggressively artsy -- there was a lot of Fort Thunder-ish stuff in the early volumes -- but it's usually more middle-of-the-road. But Lethem in particular doesn't like the middle of any road: his book includes more weirder, further out, and actually difficult-to-read comics. (His cover is by Raymond Pettibon, a gallery painter who incorporates comics elements but is not a comics creator by the definition of anyone not named Jonathan Lethem. Pettibon also contributes a few "comics" -- actually paintings, and, even worse, all dated before the year supposedly memorialized here -- which I found impossible to actually read. I mean the words were physically that small/twisted/badly laid out that I couldn't get my aging eyes to make them coherent.) Lethem has some other bold choices, but Pettibon is the only one I'd actually object to -- some stories aren't too my taste, or not what I think that creator can do at his/her best, but nothing else felt totally out of place like Pettibon.

Chast's volume is more typical -- I don't want to say "middle of the road," since that sounds bland or reductive, but she's driving on the road all the time, at least. Lethem goes from the road to careening off a cliff semi-randomly, which is interesting and exciting but means he throws in a number of things that this particular reader was not impressed with.

Anyway, this is a great series, but -- which I didn't think about, or articulate, with the 2013 book -- the guest editor really matters. With a decade of them behind us, a reader can find the editor most sympatico to her worldview -- maybe Lynda Barry, maybe Neil Gaiman, maybe Scott McCloud -- and start with that book. Good stories don't date, so you don't have to grab the most recent book.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #73: Shade the Changing Girl, Vol 1: Earth Girl Made Easy by Cecil Castellucci and Marley Zarcone

Big Comics is all about the reboot. It worked for the Crisis and the Secret Wars. It worked for all of those Brits taking over minor DC characters in the late '80s and early '90s. It worked when Superman was killed and Batman's back was broken. It worked when everyone suddenly had pouches for about five years in the '90s. It worked for everyone's Year One and Year Zero and Year One Million and Year Minus Fifty-Seven. It worked for big crossovers. It worked every time some team wanted to revive a dormant character -- change everything and you were good for at least twenty issues or so.

Well, it worked up until the point it stopped working, which is the last couple of years. But if you trace that reboot impulse back to Barry Allen in 1956, it worked for sixty years, which is a damn long time.

And maybe it can keep working in the right circumstances. Maybe you can't reboot everything all the time, but you can reboot forgotten things at the right time. You know, like they used to do?

Shade the Changing Girl is a reboot, in the tradition of the Karen Berger British Writer Trans-Atlantic Express of yore that built Vertigo around itself. This time it's called Young Animal, since our celebrity-obsessed society needs a minor rock-star to lend glamor to it (Gerard Way, who I'm slandering here, since he actually is a writer of good comics). but you can't blame the creators for that. This Shade is a descendant of the Peter Milligan/Chris Bachalo Shade the Changing Man Vertigo series, more so than the original character as created by Steve Ditko.

But where Milligan's Shade was a Brit's long examination of America and what was the hell its deal, new writer Cecil Castellucci's concerns are more personal and 21st century: who are we, who are out friends, what kind of people are we, do we enjoy what we do. I imagine there are already too many essays on the Internet comparing the Milligan/Bachalo "masculine" concerns with the Castellucci/Zarcone "feminine" ones, so I'll just point to that difference, and say I personally think it's more of an outer-world/inner-world difference.

Loma is young and fabulous on the world Meta, a recent college dropout whose vague dreams are too big for her actual life and circumstances. She's a bit obsessed with Rac Shade, the poet and space traveler and possessor of the M-Vest and protagonist of the Milligan/Bachalo series, and has struck up a fuck-buddy relationship with a young man, Lepuck, who has access to the museum where that vest is housed. (It was part of a government program to harness "the Madness," a purposely ill-defined zone of space/time/reality between Meta and Earth, and presumably there are other similar items elsewhere.) And so Loma grabs that vest, puts it on, and travels through the Madness to Earth to escape her life and be more like Rac.

"Shade" is more a title than a name, so she calls herself Loma Shade, or just Shade, on the other end.

Both Lepuck and Loma are non-humanoid sapients, on a world of mostly humanoform people -- we later learn because of immigration and refugees and similar background issues. This will probably become important at some point, if Shade the Changing Girl runs long enough.

As Rac did, Loma arrives on Earth in someone else's body -- that's how the Madness works. (Rac eventually inhabited four people, I think, during the Milligan/Bachalo series.) Her host is the brain-dead mean-girl teenager Megan Boyer. I say "mean girl," but Megan was far beyond that: she was a vicious force of nature, dominating her supposed friends on the swim team and her boyfriend. Castellucci doesn't underline the parallel, but Megan used people not all that differently than Loma used Lepuck -- it's just that Megan did it consistently and with a real end in mind, unlike flighty Loma.

This first volume, Earth Girl Made Easy, collects the first six issues -- mostly set-up. Loma settles into Megan's life, tries to figure out how to live on 2016 Earth when her main cultural reference points are Rac's poems and a not-I-Love-Lucy '50s TV show she loves, and learns that she can't just get back through the Madness for Whatever Reason. Meanwhile, back on Meta, Lepuck pines for Loma, who he thinks is his girlfriend. And shadowy forces gather, remnants of the government program Rac was part of, interested in the M-Vest and in grabbing back power. They will be our villains, eventually.

But for this first volume, Loma/Megan is enough of her own villain: she has to make friends in a school that old-Megan cruelly dominated, and overcome what's left of Megan in that shared mind. Again, this is mostly set-up: these six issues introduce the case on Earth and Meta and get them to what I expect will be the status quo for another dozen or two issues.

On the art side, I have to call out colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick as the real star: this Shade is bright and brilliant and coruscating, as a book about Madness must be. Penciller Marley Zarcone (with inkers Ande Parks and Ryan Kelly) do a solid job, which looks to me like a slightly flatter take on '90s Vertigo style to give those colors space to blossom.

This Shade is worth checking out, if you remember the '90s series with fondness, if you want to see if DC can do something Vertigo-ish in this new century, and if you're interested in a smart take on mean girls and teenage life.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #72: Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Lands of epic fantasy have one big continent, with an irregular coast. There may be islands off the coast here and there, but there's only one continent, only one world. There's one kind of people on one side of the continent and another kind over on the other side. Those groups don't get along all the time, of course -- and, if we're telling an epic fantasy story, it will be during a time when they're spectacularly not getting along. Maybe there's a big wall slicing across the middle of that continent, Robert-Frostly trying to make good neighbors out of warring parties. It won't work, of course. We want our epic fantasy story, and that requires blood and death and devastation, pain and sorrow and misery, and heroic figures that feel all of that pain and yet find ways to transcend and transform their world, in the end.

But we're not at the end. We're at the beginning, with the one continent and the big wall and the two nations of very different people, about to go to war and kill untold numbers of both of them. And an epic fantasy war, like an epic fantasy story, can be expected to go on for a long time.

This particular example is Monstress, a stylish comic written by lawyer/novelist Marjorie Liu and drawn by manga-ka Sana Takeda. The first collection is called Awakening: it has the first six issues. The war hasn't even started yet by the time we hit the last page in this book, which is also typical for epic fantasy. I've seen this world described as "Asian-inspired," and it may be, but it looks like pretty standard to me: humans on one side, "elves" on the other. The "elves" are here called Arcanic, and are explicitly half-breeds of humans and the immortal used-to-be-godly Ancients, but they're even divided into Seelie and Unseelie Courts -- pardon me, Dusk and Dawn -- to make the parallel more obvious.

There are also Lovecraftian Old Gods, who lurk in spaces between worlds and have bodies that don't fit the humanoform plan. So far, though, while they may be called evil monsters who want to destroy the world, the one we see is in practice somewhat more reasonable and amenable. (And there's talking cats, because epic fantasy.)

An epic fantasy heroine must be someone secretly special, but seemingly inconsequential. A young girl, perhaps, who lost an arm in a way we don't yet know. But actually the daughter of a major figure in the world. But actually the keeper of huge secrets. But actually the host of an Old God. But actually possessing perhaps the most powerful magic of her world. But actually special.

This is Maika Halfwolf: she's seventeen when the story begins. A major war between Arcanic and human forces ended a few years back with a huge magical event that the humans think the Arcanics deliberately triggered. The war was otherwise inconclusive -- the borders are in the same place, and the humans are still pushing those borders, led by the obligatory all-female order of religious zealots who also have not-magical-via-a-footnote powers. And the Arcanics are much weaker, in many ways, than the humans suspect. Maika may have the key to winning a new war, for one side or the other. But, right now, she's looking for revenge on the humans she blames for her mother's death, and for a way to control that hungry Old God within her.

So: big continent with a wall in the middle, races ready to go to war again, lots of specific magic and looks-like-magic powers, decayed former gods and ominous forces from outside the world. Looks exactly like epic fantasy.

Liu musters the tropes well -- Maika is a strong, interesting character, headstrong in all of the usual epic-fantasy-protagonist ways while still being an individual. The world around her is big and complicated, and even the minor "villains" have depth and quirks. Takeda's art -- I think she's working in watercolors over ink, since she does the whole thing, pencils to color -- is equally rich and detailed, with instantly recognizable people and amazing spaces and fantastic objects for them to fight with and race through.

This is a good epic fantasy, in a medium that hasn't had much good epic fantasy. I personally have read more than enough epic fantasy in my day, but I guess there's always room for a little more if it's done with style and verve. Monstress does that.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #71: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

A family of six flees a war-torn country, after American troops abandon it and let "invaders" from the other half of what used to be the same country conquer the portion they used to protect. The family has to sneak out by boat, crammed in with others, across an open sea, and hope for help and refugee status on the other end. They make it to the USA, the country they picked, and assimilate as best they can, working hard, living in small spaces, getting spat on by the natives.

Three decades later, one of those refugee children is a doctor; the others all productive members of society as well. The parents are naturalized citizens, and separated. And the third of those four children -- Thi Bui, who was only a few years old when they fled -- is becoming a mother herself, and investigating her family's stories and history to learn more about where she came from.

This is The Best We Could Do. It's an immigrant story, which is to say the most American kind of story possible. (If you disagree with me about that, the door is that way. Don't let it hit you as you leave.)

Thi Bui had a complicated relationship with her parents -- they were demanding and tough the way a lot of first-generation immigrant parents were, trying to keep up the traditions of their homeland and be more American than anyone else at the same time. She was the third girl of the four kids -- the youngest was the only boy -- which means her sisters, nearly ten years older, got to fight the battles so that she could have it a little easier. This book is the story of those complicated relationships, through the life stories of those parents, all the way up to the present day.

The Best We Could Do is a graphic novel that took Bui around fifteen years to make -- not the writing and drawing, or not entirely, but gathering the stories of her family and writing her way into them. She had to find this story, to make it out of the materials in front of her, and that took time. This may be one of the best examples of the maxim "everyone has one great book in them" -- but I don't want to jinx Bui. She may go on to tell other stories as well, and they may take less than fifteen years. (I hope so: it would be a shame not to have other books by her, when she can make books this strong.)

But right now we have this book, and it's an engrossing, encompassing view of the lives of one Vietnamese-American family. A book of tradition and hard work and fighting against outside forces and leaping at a chance for safety and happiness. Again, a quintessentially American story, and a great one.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/10/18

This week, I got one book from the library and several from a comics shop. (And none directly from publishers.) The good news is that means I'm likely to read most or all of these books quickly.

The library book was You & A Bike & A Road, a graphic novel by Eleanor Davis that has no explanatory copy on it whatsoever. It's published by Koyama Press, but that's basically the only thing the outside of the book says. I think this is the nonfictional story of a long bike trip Davis took, but who knows? I've never seen blind-boxing applied to book design before, and I'm not sure it's the best idea. But this was a library book, which means it's low-risk to me, and I did like How to Be Happy, Davis's book of short comics stories.

And new books I bought included the below:

Jack Staff, Vol. 2: Soldiers by Paul Grist. Last month I finally got to the first volume, a decade or more after this series ended, and the comics shop I went to had the other three books, plus what I think is the last volume of Kane that I missed before that. But let's start slow, with this book....

Paper Girls, Vol. 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang. I'm still not entirely sure I trust Vaughhan to tell a full, satisfying story, but I'll give this one another volume to see where it's going. I did like volumes one and two, which is a good sign.

Descender, Vol. 4 continues the space opera series by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen -- and see my reviews of volumes one and two and three for more details.  This is not particularly hard SF, but it's smart space opera, which is about as close as I've seen comics ever get.

And last is Dave Sim's High Society, the second collection of his long-running curate's egg of a comic Cerebus. I've now got two volumes, which I may read soon. I think finding anything deeper into this series, at this point, requires buying them online, so we'll see if I get sucked back in that far.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Book-A-Day #70: The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven by Kim Dong Hwa

Once again I see that I read the first book of a trilogy nearly a decade ago (The Color of Earth, in 2009), carefully shelved the following two books, and left them there for "someday."

Well, "left them there" is understating it: I had to move these books around repeatedly, looking at them over and over again, and somehow (I'm not sure how) saving them from my 2011 flood that destroyed so many other things I thought I wanted to read more quickly.

But every one of us has a million things we didn't do, and far fewer that we actually did do. As we get older, focusing on the first makes less and less sense -- those things are almost infinite.

So I finally did read The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven, the bulk of a trilogy by Korean manwha creator Kim Dong Hwa, retelling the story of his mother's adolescence, nearly a century ago in sleepy rural Korea. (Dong Hwa's note, I realize only now, does not say this is his parents' story, so I wonder about the strapping young man who is the hero of these books, and how he relates, if at all, to the author's actual father.)

Ehwa is sixteen, or so the flap copy tells us -- the books themselves never mention her age. There's a lot they don't mention, though: this trilogy is set in a small village somewhere in Korea, and if we weren't told it was the twentieth century, there's nothing here to clue us into that. Life goes on here as it always has, in a quiet, pastoral way.

In the first book, Ehwa had crushes on two local young men -- first the monk Chung-Myung, and then the orchard farmer's son Sunoo. But this is a romantic story -- Dong Hwa spent most of his career making romantic stories for young women -- so we know it will end with a true love, even if there are a lot of tears and long speeches about emotions before then.

And there are plenty of speeches about emotions: from Ehwa; from her mother, a widowed tavern-keeper; from the men they both love; and from nearly everyone else in this small Korean town, who are all obsessed with talking about women as flowers and men as butterflies and other unsubtle metaphors. Each page is pleasant, and the dialogue is true, but a reader may begin to wonder if rural Koreans ever think of anything else, or if that's why they are still so rural and backward in 1920ish.

I'm picking on these books, which are sweet and lovely -- Dong Hwa is good at drawing expressions, and at showing character in his faces. And the dialogue, as I said, is true -- it's only that there's so very very much of it in the six-hundred-plus pages of these books.

I suspect the natural audience for this trilogy is both substantially younger and substantially more female than I am, so my reaction doesn't mean much. My sense is that these books are exceptionally good for their kind, and I did enjoy reading them. It's only that sweet romances tend to bring out the Marvin the Paranoid Android in me....

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #69: The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec

Books can be based on anything: a random thought, a meme, a movie, a video game, a common saying, some old story the author wants to fix. But this is the only book I know based on a chart.

Georges Perec was a French writer of the mid-twentieth century, connected with the Oulipo group and deeply interested in making fiction based on arbitrary rules and other restrictions. He's probably best known on my side of the Atlantic for A Void, a novel that doesn't use the letter E. (He seems to be best-known in general for Life: A User's Manual.)

The cover proclaims this small book to be The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise, but it actually has a much longer title inside, translated faithfully from the French equivalent: The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise. And that longer title contains the bones of this novella-length work in embryo: this is a book of particulars, of roadblocks, of options, of a nearly choose-your-own-adventure style of choices and of being driven down those choices one by one in turn, with no real choice.

The endpapers contain the chart that this book was based on -- though, oddly, the two seem to have been translated by different people, so we have "engineer" one place and "professor" the other. (David Bellos translated the book, and also provided a helpful introduction. He may have also translated the chart, and used different terms for some unknown reason.) It's a flow-chart, assuming you are a man in some middle-rank position in some random French company in the mid-60s, seeking to buttonhole your boss to ask for a raise. There are, as there must be, various reasons why doing so is not possible or advisable at any given moment -- the boss's daughters have measles, or he has a fishbone from lunch in his stomach, or he doesn't look up when you knock, or he's simply not there at all, among several others -- and, if those are the case on any cycle around the chart, you must start again at the beginning.

The chart itself was created (likely in a somewhat simpler and less silly form) by a French computer scientist, Jacques Perriaud, who then apparently set out to find a novelist who would follow it "as a computer would" and turn it into fiction. That is perhaps even more bizarre than the fact that Perec actually did so. The resulting work is written as if one long run-on sentence (though a careful reader can see where periods and other punctuation would be) and cycles through all of the options on that chart, some of them repeatedly on every cycle, until finally, after eighty pages, getting in front of that boss, finding him in a receptive mood, making the case for a raise, and getting a generally favorable response.

This is obviously a literary stunt, and anyone's interest in it will be entirely based on how much she likes literary stunts. I found it short enough not to wear out its welcome, and weird enough to be fun -- particularly since the 50 years and an ocean between Perec's working world and mine have changed many aspects of office life. It is definitely one of the quirkiest books I've read, and I treasure it for that.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #68: Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez

Sandy is one of those imaginative kids you see a lot in fiction -- every creator's idealized version of her origins, smart but unfocused, spending all of her time scribbling in notebooks. (Novelists have slightly different versions, as do other creative types: this is the cartoonist's version.) She attends a strict Catholic school, somewhere vaguely Latin -- call it Bogota, Columbia, where creator Lorena Alvarez grew up herself.

And she travels to wonderful worlds in her dreams, full of color and life and happiness, where everything is both friendly and adventurous. Lights appear and turn into whatever Sandy imagines -- and, if she draws those things, they will last. Sandy's story is presented in vibrant color, in an animation-inspired style. Nightlights looks almost like a Miyazaki movie translated into comics pages, and has some of the same lessons and concerns.

Sandy's mother wants her to focus on her schoolwork, to be more grounded. So do the requisite grumpy nun teachers at her school, who are possibly the least nurturing teachers ever depicted in any fictional work. But Sandy just wants to draw and dream. Sandy's friends...well, as far as we can tell, Sandy doesn't have any friends, since she lives entirely in her own head. Does she want it that way? Well, she does leap onto the first girl who reaches out to her, which could be a clue.

That girl is Morfie, with purple hair and eyes, who immediately says Sandy's drawings are "really good." Morfie, we quickly see, is not normal -- she claims to be in "a different class," but Sandy sees her sitting in a tree later that day during a storm. And that night, Morfie is in Sandy's dreams as well, demanding Sandy draw for her so she can adore Sandy.

Nightlights is a book at least partially for younger readers, so it's not likely that Morfie will take over Sandy's life and turn her into an image-making machine. And it's a short book, so Sandy will find her way out before too long. And she does so in an interesting manner -- one that implies (as does the final pages) that she is paying attention and learning when she seems to be just scribbling doodles in her notebook.

Perhaps that's the lesson of Nightlights. It's the kind of book that seems bound to have a lesson, though it's not clear what that lesson should be. Alvarez never makes it clear where Morfie comes from, or what her deal is. She's clearly not just "the new kid," but what is she? And is Sandy's world -- either the daytime one of school or the nighttime one of strange lovable creatures -- infested with similar beings? What is the meaning of the last page?

I like Nightlights, and particularly appreciate the lovely, vibrant art. But it seems to be just this side of a formal allegory, and I can't figure out what the signs and signifiers mean. Typically, a book like this has a moral for the Sandy character to learn: do your homework first, for example, or never give up on your dreams, or perhaps the nuns are right and the Beloved Mother hates it when you draw in class. But none of those seem right for Nightlights. The moral, if any, seems to be for us: for people who might find a Sandy in our lives.

Maybe that moral is that we should trust her. She may seem unfocused and wild, but she will pull through in the end. She knows what's important, and what adoration isn't worth anything. I'll take that moral, I guess, whether it's what Alvarez meant, or not.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #67: Louis Undercover by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault

Children know more than adults give them credit for. They know huge things, things too big for words, things they try not to think about. As they get older, they can corral those huge things with words and tame them into the pieces of normal life. But kids can't do that yet: the world is big and dangerous and surprising and entirely out of their control.

Louis is one of those kids: old enough to know things, too young to do anything about them. He's eight or ten, maybe -- old enough to be responsible for his kid brother Truffle (who is not really named Truffle). And he shuttles between his separated father and mother, when he wants to focus on Billie, the girl in his class who he thinks about all the time, but hasn't quite worked up the courage to actually talk to yet.

Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault (writer and artist, respectively) tackle a different story from their first graphic novel Jane, the Fox & Me here -- Louis is younger than Helene was, and there's nothing he can do to solve his own problems. Well, there is something he can do to solve his problem with Billie, and we'll see by the end of the book if he's able to do that.

But Louis's father has a drinking problem, the kind that starts with wine at 11 AM to quiet the shakes and goes on to mania and then depression from there like clockwork. Louis and Truffle seem to only live with their father on weekends, or occasionally -- but this all new. Their parents were together not that long ago, and Louis desperately wants things to go back to normal.

Their mother is the one keeping things together: getting the boys to school, hiding her tears from them, working and cooking and mothering as hard as she can. She moved them from that big, now-mostly-empty house the father is still rattling around about eighteen months ago, to a small apartment in Montreal. The parents are not divorced. Nothing is final. But even Truffle knows, on some level, that something is wrong with his father.

Louis Undercover, if you want to be reductive, is the story of a family broken by an alcoholic, seen by a child, told in comics. But it's so much more than an "issue" story, deeper and more resonant. We all worry about our parents. We all worry about our children. We all are in families that don't work as well as we want them to. We all want to both go back to the good times in the past and move forward to new good times in the future.

Louis tells us this story: it's all in his words, and Britt makes them cutting and true, every moment. Arsenault's softly colored pages, with their fuzzy panel borders, draw us into that story, and make it real while keeping it from being so cutting we can't stand it.

This is a lovely, true book. Like so many books made for younger readers, it should not be restricted only to them. And, frankly, an adult -- a parent -- will get a lot more out of Louis Undercover than even the most thoughtful and mature child. But that's what great books do: they meet you where you are, and also wait for you to grow up, so they can meet you there as well.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #66: The Compleat Discworld Atlas ostensibly by Terry Pratchett but really not

Terry Pratchett died in March 2015, and this book, with his name very prominent on the cover, was published six months later. One might have a justified skepticism about how much of the material here was actually written by Pratchett -- doubly so if one remembers Pratchett had been suffering from a rare early-onset form of Alzheimer's disease for the decade before that, and trebly so if one is aware how ancillary books are usually put together for bestselling writers.

What we have here is The Compleat Discworld Atlas, which says its by Terry Pratchett "aided and abetted by The Discworld Emporium." The Discworld Emporium is explicated in the lawyer-type on the copyright page: it's four people, and apparently organized as a company for the purposes of doing Discworld stuff. (Surprisingly to this reader, Stephen Briggs, the long-time major-domo of non-fictional Discworld, is not part of the consortium. Perhaps there has been a coup, or a schism.)

But, you know, we don't need the author to comb through his books and collate the scattered details of the world he built there. Authors generally are not great at doing that, anyway, and prefer to go on building that world rather than researching what they've already done. That's a job for other people to begin with: dedicated, obsessive people. Fans. You know what I'm saying.

But the audience wants to think that the author is telling them the secrets behind the fictional world, and the audience is the one who actually pays money. So a fake non-fiction book will want to seem like it's by the original author, even if it's put together by an Emporium of other people. That all brings us here.

Compleat Discworld Atlas is the successor to the series of individual "mappes" published in the '90s, a major part of the first non-fictional Discworld flourishing, led by the aforementioned Mr. Briggs. The Streets of Ankh-Morpork was first, in 1993, on the grounds that cities will have a definite shape, even if whole worlds can be a bit messy and unclear. But The Discworld Mappe soon followed, and then A Tourist's Guide to Lancre, and, last and least, Death's Domain. Non-fictional Discworld shifted into other avenues -- Nanny Ogg's Cookbook, for example, and a yearly series of desk diaries. But the mapping impulse was apparently still there, and finally burst forth with this full-fledged atlas, in the works at the time of Pratchett's death.

Atlas contains both a book and a map, combined in a sturdy heavy-paper cover. The map is quite large: roughly three feet square when entirely unfolded. One side is a clear map of the whole Disc, lightly colored in greens and light browns to show forests and mountains and deserts, with physical and political features labeled and hard-to-see dotted lines to indicate political boundaries. The reverse is a more "traditional" map, with Great A'Tuin below and the gods above -- it's very striking but not meant to be used as an actual map you can find things on. The map is deeply folded to fit into the package, but I'd be surprised if flat, rolled versions weren't also available for those who need to have the Discworld on their walls.

The accompanying book covers the lands of the Disc in roughly descending order of how much we know about them, starting with the Circle Sea (particularly Ankh-Morpork) and expanding outward from there in a sequence that doesn't quite follow any particular geographic rules. Generally each section starts off with a colored political map, so we can see where the borders are, but it omits those a couple of times for no obvious reason. There's also a lot of art in this book, which is credited in tiny type hidden on the copyright page as "additional illustrations by Peter Dennis." The maps themselves are presumably by some or all of the Emporium, who comprise Isobel Pearson, Rob Voyce, Bernard Pearson, and Ian Mitchell. The roles of the various Emporiumizers are never explicated.

The book won't tell a devoted Discworld fan anything she doesn't already know: this is a derivative work, not something original and new. (Contrast it to George R.R. Martin's The World of Ice & Fire, which was almost entirely about things devoted readers didn't know -- though some of them were annoyed in that case because he was telling stories from his fake-history instead of continuing the main series. Fans are rarely happy with an unalloyed joy -- this is what I'm saying.)

But it's a nice package about Discworld, and it was published at just the right time: there won't be any new Discworld novels or other stories unless Rhianna Pratchett relents at some point under the weight of increasingly large cheques dangled in front of her eyes.

No one ever needs a fake non-fiction book. But I enjoy them, probably much more than I should, and this is a solid example of the type, only faintly identifiable as a line-expanding product to be sold to bolster a corporate bottom line.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #65: Kaijumax, Season Two: The Seamy Underbelly by Zander Cannon

It's taken two library systems to get me caught up on Zander Cannon's giant-monsters-in-prison comic series, and that seems a lot more complicated than it should be. But any system that gets books you want to read into your hands is, in the end, a successful system -- so I'm not going to complain.

Cannon is following the Classy Cable TV style here: six-issue mini-series, each basically self-contained, coming out about the same time each year. I expect that gives him time to do some other comics work as well, and (more importantly) time to plan the next series and promote the book of the last series, as comics is getting more and more disconnected from the just-put-something-out-in-pamphlet-form-every-month business model. (And, let's be honest: that model was good for the companies that owned the companies and characters, but not so good for anyone else in the pipeline.)

So: here is Kaijumax, Season Two: The Seamy Underbelly. Electrogor, the nice guy who looked like our main character back at the beginning of the first season, has broken out of prison with Green Humongo, and the two of them are hiding out with Red Humongo, who is Green's brother despite their having completely different origins. But the cast of characters is much wider than just our two fugitives, and they're scattered all over the place -- I'd say "around the world," but one of them spends substantial time on what I'm pretty sure is the moon.

Cannon has backed his way into something like a racial allegory, though he has an afterword where he denies that was the point, and explains that the parallels came as he turned "giant monsters in prison" into something more than just a joke idea by trying to take it seriously. I found it an interesting strand of the story -- kaiju as a minority group, dispossessed and discriminated against, and the family dramas between the cop kaiju brother and the criminal kaiju brother. I'm not part of the racial group that the kaiju mostly reference, so I can point to that element and note it, but readers who are closer to a real-world version could have very different responses.

Anyway, there's a big cast, sprawling around the world and elsewhere, of cops and criminals, jailers and jailed, corrupt and honest, and those who cross all of those categories. It's a fairly dark moral universe for both the kaiju and those they call "squishies." (Cannon plays it monster-movie style, but there has to be a lot of death in the background of Kaijumax. Every monster in prison represents at least a few thousand dead humans, maybe more.)

And it's a noirish cartoon version of every monster movie ever, too: giant piloted robots and giant self-aware robots, lizards from the depths of the ocean and Lovecraftian beasts from between the stars, demons and mad scientists and scheming sons. It's only because the monsters are so apt to get addicted (to nuclear power, to fictional monster-drugs) that this world even still exists.

Season Two is darker than the first one, almost paradoxically, since this is the storyline taking place almost entirely outside of prison. But prison is where things are relatively simple, right? You follow the rules (official and unwritten), you keep your nose out of places it shouldn't be, you keep your head down, and you do your time. There's no place to keep your head down in the wider world, and everywhere your nose is could be a place it shouldn't be.

You have to be able to take Kaijumax seriously to enjoy it -- to accept the premise, admit the science is severely bent at best, and appreciate the models. If you can do that, it's a fine comic about loyalty and friendship, good and evil, what you have to do and what you can do, and, as the first book put it, terror and respect.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #64: Brief Histories of Everyday Objects by Andy Warner

If a webcomic is intended all along to become a book -- if it's being created as a book, and put up online as a teaser or buzz-builder along the way -- is it somehow less of a webcomic? I'm sure there are webcomics purists who will insist it is: there are purists for everything, and we're probably all purists for something. But, realistically, what difference does it make?

I discovered Andy Warner's Brief Histories of Everyday Objects before the book came out, when he was serializing the individual pieces online. I read it like a webcomic, was happy when I heard it would be a book, and (eventually) found and read the book. That looks like success, from an ex-publishing hand and still-marketing professional. That looks like the way it's supposed to work.

Warner's introduction here doesn't quite say either way: he developed Brief Histories as "an idea for a comic." I think I've seen elsewhere that he had the book deal in place ahead of time...but maybe I'm making that up. (I like people to have book deals; it makes them happy, pays them for their work, and gets stuff for me to read. Win/win.) However it happened, Brief Histories was on the web, and it is now a book.

Warner gives the history, or a history, of forty-five random common objects, from toothbrushes to bicycles. Each one gets four pages, three and a half of them telling one main narrative, plus a few panels of "briefer histories" at the end for random fun facts that Warner presumably couldn't fit into the main story.  These are not all necessarily the entire history of these objects, or even their original creation -- it tends to be a funny story that's reasonably close to the modern day, meaning a lot of 19th century and early 20th century inventors.

It's all true, as far as I know, and it's all pretty funny. Warner is an energetic cartoonist who uses a lot of blacks and tones, giving his pages vibrancy and depth. And, of course, they're often about obsessed people talking about their creations in semi-anachronistic dialogue from Warner, which adds to the humor. (And will probably annoy purists, again -- though purists are not likely to enjoy four-page quick takes on anything.)

To sum up: Brief Histories is funny, enjoyable, and, if you don't watch out, you just might learn something.