Friday, January 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #19: On the Ropes by James Vance and Dan E. Burns

"Aw, this is a sequel to somethin'!"
 - Crow T. Robot

I never read Kings in Disguise. On the Ropes is a sequel to Kings in Disguise. So anyone who is looking for a comparison to Kings in Disguise will be disappointed. Anyone wondering how many consecutive sentences I cram Kings in Disguise into, though, may be intrigued.

Kings in Disguise was a comics series by James Vance and Dan E. Burr, published by Kitchen Sink Press over several years in the mid-'80s and eventually collected into book form. Telling the story of plucky Depression orphan Fred Block, Kings in Disguise was critically lauded, winning both the Eisner and Harvey awards. Luckily, we're not here to talk about Kings in Disguise. Because, as I said, I never read Kings in Disguise.

To repeat: On the Ropes is a sequel to Kings in Disguise, set about five years later. Since -- and this will, I hope, be the last time I mention this -- I never read Kings in Disguise, I'm not entirely certain which flashbacks in On the Ropes are to the earlier story and which are to things that happened after that story ended. I think Fred lost a leg in a freight-car-hopping accident after Kings in Disguise, but I could be wrong. Anyway, he's now 17, and it's 1937, and he's working as the assistant to an escape artist in a WPA circus traveling the small cities of Illinois. [1]

Fred is also a labor organizer, or at least associated with a group of organizers trying to get together a major strike against steel mills across the Rust Belt (then still moderately shiny, at least for the bosses). In particular, he has a small but vital role in that organizing effort, which will cause him danger and distress.

His boss is Gordon Corey, who I'm afraid is that semi-cliche, the escape artist who yearns to die. Gordon also has secrets in his past, which would-be novelist Fred will ferret out as he tries to ingratiate himself with a female stringer who he thinks can help him with his writing and maybe make some introductions to help him get published.

The narrative also follows, in parallel, two very nasty men -- one smaller, smarter, and fond of a knife, the other big and strong but not quite as stupid as you'd expect -- who are employed by the usual shadowy rich people to do some union-busting, and who rack up a serious body count along the way. This element feels pretty melodramatic; they kill more people than is plausible for traveling freelancers -- they need to be more solidly plugged into a specific power structure to have the cover-ups of multiple murders in multiple places be reasonable, even in a deeply corrupt time and place.

Again, I didn't read Kings in Disguise; I can't compare the two. This is a solidly lefty book about labor agitation in hard times, with a melodramatic plot and a certain stretching for meaning, which I didn't find entirely convincing. My understanding is that it did not take twenty-five years to create -- Kings in Disguise was published as a complete work in 1988 and On the Ropes came out as an original graphic novel in 2013 -- but Burr's art sometimes varies from page to page, making me wonder how long it did take. (He also sometimes draws different characters in slightly different styles in the same panel, which is mildly surprising -- I couldn't figure out if there was a specific artistic purpose there.)

On the Ropes is a solid, historically grounded graphic novel, shining a light on a piece of history a lot of people have forgotten now. (A lot of working people in this country, in particular, have forgotten how much blood people like them shed to get unions, as they run headlong away from them into the cold embrace of corporate generosity.) I don't think it's a masterpiece, but it's worth reading for people interested in the period, the creators, or the subject. And, of course, for anyone looking for comics about actual people in real-world situations, of which there are always fewer than there should be.

[1] Note that this is the first sentence in this review not to mention Kings in Disguise. I could have kept it up, if I wanted. I'm not proud. Or tired.

Quote of the Week

"I don't like to threaten someone and then discover that he's got the edge on me. I've had that happen a couple of times. It's embarrassing."
 - Steven Brust, Vallista, p.47

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #18: Equinoxes by Pedrosa

The hardest thing, for me, is to write on a book about normal people's normal lives -- without the genre trappings of excitement and violence, without the framework of some standard plot, without being able to do the Hollywood high concept thing of matching a new work with X and Y from the past. When that book is in comics form, and a lot of the heavy lifting of emotion and connection and scene-setting and time passing is done through art, it's even harder: I'm not artistically trained, and I don't have a strong vocabulary to talk about those elements.

So, um, Equinoxes is a big, stunning book, sprawling across a whole year and a large chunk of France, with a large cast, not all of whose names we learn. It comes from Cyril Pedrosa, who in that European-comics style is usually credited with just his last name, and whose work I haven't seen since the heartbreakingly wonderful Three Shadows in 2008.

Pedrosa organizes his book around the four seasons, starting in autumn -- and, yes, he is eliding solstices into equinoxes to make the structure work, but let's not be too much astronomical sticklers right now, OK? Each section begins with a wordless series of small panels about a Mowgli-like hunter-gatherer, somewhere at some time. (We will get other hints about him later.) Then the main action begins, set in France in what I think is the present day. (But everyone has flip phones, so maybe it's supposed to be about ten years ago, sometime in the mid-aughts.)

There are two main clusters of characters, one centered on the middle-aged divorced orthodontist Vincent and his teenage daughter Pauline and the other on the aged ex-radical Louis. There's also a photographer, not connected to either of those groups, who wanders through the action, another young woman, a little older than Pauline, trying to find her place in the world and work that will give her meaning. There are two kinds of text interruptions to the flow of comics -- one is directly the thoughts of the photographer as she grapples with her life, and the other, I think, is her flow-of-consciousness impression of the person she's just photographed. She adds another level of art to Equnoxes, which already is about, at heart, the big questions: what gives meaning to life, how should we live, how do we relate to each other, what brings people together and pulls them apart.

This is not a book of plot. It is a book of connections and daily life, of moments that feel small at the moment but maybe aren't, of what to do with today and tomorrow and tomorrow, of the things that break into your life and shake it all up.

If I were French, I think I'd know where this takes place: it's somewhere specific, I think, a small city on or near the coast. The places in it are real and solid, and we see a few of them repeatedly from different angles and in different seasons.

The people are equally real: Vincent is a bit of an asshole, but he knows it and fights against it. Louis is worn out from his life and detached from the things others think he should engage in. Pauline is quiet except when she explodes, hiding behind earbuds like so many other teenagers. And there are many more -- some of whose names we figure out easily, some who appear once in one context and then loop back doing something else, some who only wander through once.

The cover is appropriate both thematically -- two people, in a moment of conversation but entirely separate and not looking at each other -- and as an important moment of the story. But I'm afraid it will look cold and distant, and this is not a chilly book. Equinoxes does require time and a willingness to let events flow, like an independent film, but it is lovely and true and has a deep wellspring of humanity in it.

I thought Three Shadows was a masterpiece; Equinoxes is as much of one -- big and expansive and gorgeous. (Pedrosa is also doing a lot of things with his art -- colors for the season and places and people -- that I can point to but not explain in any depth.) I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who cares about people and their lives...which I hope is all of us.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #17: Fred the Clown in "The Iron Duchess" by Roger Langridge

Fred the Clown will not win, in love or in life. That is the rule. As long as you understand that going in, you can enjoy the stories about him with joy and a light heart.

(Except..he sort-of does win love here, in an odd way, because this book is basically a melodramatic movie, and that kind of movie has to have something like a happy ending. But it's a very Fred the Clown kind of happy ending.)

The book is Fred the Clown in "The Iron Duchess." It is basically a silent movie presented as panels on paper, but that's nowhere near the oddest thing creator Roger Langridge has done in comics over his career. He's good at this stuff; Iron Duchess is right up the middle of what he does best: longing love, amusing squalor, smirking villainy, mad science, trains hurtling headlong, mountains carved into the visage of a beloved ancestor, extended dream sequences, the power of the cinema, and amusingly communicative pigs and horses.

I could fill up the page with words about Iron Duchess, but that would be severely beside the point: this is a mostly-silent book, with some information conveyed through printed materials in the fictional world, but no dialogue or captions. This is a story that exists separately from words, in a movie-world that never quite existed, with characters who are sturdy and dependable because we know them on sight -- the beautiful love interest, the grumpy father, the handsome movie star. Well, and Fred. And his pig.

Which is rather the point, actually -- Fred and his pig takes the stuff of standard melodrama and makes it silly. Makes it something more slapstick while at the same time more emotionally true. A nice trick, that. Langridge is good at those kind of contradictions.

I suspect I'm not making the case strongly enough, so let me be blunt: Langridge is a great cartoonist, and this book is him at the peak of his strengths, telling a story in the ways only he can. Yes, it's a fake silent movie about a bumbling, penniless clown and the heiress he falls in love with. So what?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #16: Amazona by Chris Achilleos

There's no reason why taste in art should follow national borders, particularly if we're talking about popular art, designed as packaging for consumer goods. And yet there's a definite style to British SFF cover art -- more pronounced in the 1960s through '80s when the UK and US were clearly separate markets -- which is noticeably different to the American styles of the same era.

So it's not that I don't like the paintings of Christos Achilleos. It's that he works in an idiom and a milieu that I'm not attuned to; that he's spent a long career pleasing and delighting an audience that I was never part of. I appreciate his work, but I've never really seen a painting of his that I loved. (Unlike a lot of his American counterparts, from Eggleton and Whelan to Maitz and Dos Santos and Picacio.)

But I do find that difference fascinating, particularly when it's embodied in someone really skilled and passionate about his work, as Achilleos is. He's a really good maker of art, both commercially successful and willing to move away from the just commercial to make pictures the way he wants to, for vague commissions or his own purposes.

I tend to appreciate Achilleos's tighter paintings best: he works on-and-off in airbrush, and some of his work has a really tight finish and sheen, particularly for human skin. (And, like many fantasy artists, he has more than his share of paintings showing a lot of human skin, mostly female and always attractive.) That's the opposite of how I feel about some American SFF painters, particularly Bob Eggleton -- Eggleton, to me, as at his best when he's loosest, and you can see the globs of paint on the canvas. For Achiellos, though, his work always feels static to me, even the action scenes -- so the ones that are obviously posed and still work best for me, as they fit the feeling his paintings give me.

I figured out that what I like best in Achilleos's paintings are the single figures, highly detailed, frozen in a moment of contemplation or preparation. Others will have different preferences; he's worked in a number of styles and varies the tightness of his painting to suit a particular project.

So, when I realized this week that I had a book of his -- it's from 2004, and I think I've had it since then, metaphorically under a barrel, until my Book-A-Day rummagings turned it up -- I jumped right on it. And still didn't love it. But that's just the way it is.

The book is Amazona, and it collects mostly art that wasn't in his 80s-era books Medusa and Sirens because he made it since then. (Funny how that works.) It opens with a long foreword explaining Achilleos's career to date (well, as of a decade ago), including some details about his disagreements with his former publisher, Dragon's World, and how that led to the sixteen-year gap between books. (In my publishing career, I worked somewhat regularly with agents for Dragon's World in the US, but I was always on the opposite side of the table to them -- I represented someone who was paying them, while Achilleos was looking to get paid by them. The details here basically match murmurings I'd heard at the time and afterward from other artists.)

The bulk of the book is divided into three long sections: Amazons, Fantasy, and Glamor. Two of the three, as you might guess, are primarily pictures of attractive ladies wearing not very much, but what they are wearing is exotic and strange in various ways. (Fantasy art has been about the female for a large proportion of the time for decades now.) Amazons is the fantasy art, and some personal work, along with some mostly historical paintings that can function as fantasy covers. Fantasy, right in the middle, is the work that isn't mostly about the female form -- battle scenes, and a few mightily-thewed warriors, and the like -- but that doesn't mean it's entirely devoid of corseted women. And then the Glamor section has paintings Achilleos did for fetish magazines and nightclubs and some private commissions. In this section, he talks about his models a lot more, and the point of many of the paintings is to depict a particular model, because was then a moderately famous nightlife personality or just particularly striking.

I'm still not a huge fan of Achilleos, but he's very good at what he does, and has continually worked on his craft and passions over a thirty-plus year career. And who ever said I was ever the arbiter for anything?

Monday, January 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #15: Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

Something can be impressive, even admirable, and still not be the best idea in the world. It can be both a major achievement, and less useful in many ways than the thing it was based on. It can be fun and amusing but also a chore.

I am talking about XKCD creator Randall Munroe's 2015 book Thing Explainer here, in case you missed the title and the big book image off to the left there. And it is: all of those things.

The impulse, when talking about Thing Explainer, is to try to ape Munroe's language. I'm not going to do that; I like long words and long sentences and complicated thoughts, and I don't like artificially constraining myself.

But I'm not opposed to seeing how it works out when someone else artificially constrains himself.

Thing Explainer aims to be a The Way Things Work for a new generation, with pictures of many common or basic things and labels to explain them all. But the title hints at Munroe's new wrinkle: he wrote the book using only the thousand (or "ten hundred," as he puts it, since thousand isn't on his list) most common words in the English language.

It's a fun gimmick, but it's still a gimmick, on the same level as Oulipo or Ernest Vincent Wright's Gadsby, the novel without the letter e. It becomes particularly silly when the reader realizes "nine" is not one of those words, leaving Munroe to repeatedly count "eight, the number after eight, ten."

There are strictures that make a work stronger by supporting it, like a classical sonnet. This is not one of those. Instead, his limited vocabulary just makes Munroe avoid using the actual words that define things and instead call them "fire water" (petroleum) and "sky boat" (airplane) and "little house-food eaters" (mice). Some of those circumlocutions, admittedly, become pointed and nicely avoid the euphemisms baked into conventional language, like "machine for burning cities" (atomic bomb). But those are rare, and far outnumbered by the number after eight.

It all culminates in the least useful periodic table ever devised by the hand of man, where Munroe is unable to use the words "periodic" or "table" or "element" or "molecule" or "proton" or "neutron" or "electron" -- or, in fact, the names of any of the elements themselves. [1] So instead we get a lot of boxes in the well-known sequence with useless circumlocutions like "metal used in paint until we realized it made people sick" and "rock that looks like a cool tiny city" and "a rock that can change one kind of power to another."

Thing Explainer wanted to be a book that was simple enough to explain things to people who didn't know how this stuff worked. But, without using the right words, it instead becomes a book primarily for the people who already know very well how this stuff works, and and remember where Molybdenum and Thallium are supposed to be and what they do. Instead of being inclusionary with its simple words, it instead becomes exclusionary.

Using the right words is important. Knowing the right words to use is one of the central goals of education. Thing Explainer is a fun lark, but it's deeply wrong-headed at its core, and tends more to a smug "oh, I know what that means" response than actual learning. It is much more for scientists and technologists who get the joke than it is for children or other less-educated people trying to learn something real and true.

[1] This is untrue. The name of exactly one element is on his list of ten hundred words: gold. But having it there points out exactly how useless the rest of his labels are -- illustrating the difference between lightning and "sky light made when power moves."

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/13

Monday once again -- though this Monday is a holiday in my country, which is nice. [speculation about what current political leadership in the US would think of the gentleman that holiday honors has been expunged]

Anyway, what I do in this space every Monday is list whatever books showed up in my house over the past week, however they arrived. Oddly, this week I have exactly one book, which came from a publicist and which I saw once before.

So let me point you to the post from Monday, November 6, for more details about Terry Goodkind's new epic fantasy novel Shroud of Eternity, which was published by Tor in the US in hardcover last week. It's the second in "The Nicci Chronicles," a spin-off or continuation of his long-running and bestselling Sword of Truth series, so presumably a large number of readers will be interested.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #14: Home and Away by Mawil

I first discovered the German cartoonist who uses the single name Mawil from his books Beach Safari and Sparky O'Hare, Master Electrician (both of those links go to round-ups that include something like a review of each book) a few years back, filed him as someone fun to watch out for, and promptly didn't manage to see anything else by him for roughly a decade.

It's entirely possible I wasn't paying attention, I admit.

But I re-read Sparky O'Hare recently, and was reminded of how much fun Mawil is. So I looked up what else he'd done, made some lists, and ended up getting his book Home and Away as a Christmas present.

This collects comics that originally appeared in 2005-07 in various German outlets (not specified here), then were collected into a German-language book in 2007 and finally translated into English and brought out by the UK publisher Blank Slate in 2011.

From this book and other evidence, I understand Mawil is known mostly as an autobiographical cartoonist; I think he has had semi-regular strips in German magazines and newspapers, mostly using his life (or the funnier, semi-fictional version of it, as usual) for material. And the stories here are all in that vein: the book opens with a number of shorter strips, about his life growing up in then-East Germany, or his then-current life and career, and then dives into two longer chunks of comics. The first longer chunk is still not that long, just eight pages of related comics about his first car, a Skoda -- which means very little to Americans like me, but I gather is one of the premier lousy cars of the world.

And then, to close out the collection, is the longest story, "Welcome Home." At forty-six pages, it's about half the book, telling the story of Mawil's week-long trip to a summer "hippy camp" in the South of France. A friend went in a past year -- and, apparently, met his then-girlfriend there -- giving Mawil the bug. But the friend bowed out this year, leaving our hero to hitchhike with strangers and end up in a big swirling mass of peace and love and roughing it essentially alone. Mawil is a introverted, self-tormenting sort -- he makes comics for a living! -- so his personality doesn't entirely mesh with the vibe of the gathering. He tries to meet girls, but it doesn't really work out. But he does manage to unbend a bit along the way...and he now has the same not-quite-true stories to tell to others that his friend told him!

Home and Away is a fun, light-hearted collection of slice of life comics, in a cartoony style that's basically the opposite of bigfoot. (Mawil draws feet very tiny, particularly on women.) You can easily see how it could be widely popular, and well-suited to be published in general national magazines. I liked it, and I hope it doesn't take me another decade to find more of his books.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #13: Fire!! by Peter Bagge

When I got this book, I noted here that Zora Neale Hurston seemed like an odd choice for cartoonist Peter Bagge to biographize. But his introduction to the book itself makes his interest clearer: Hurston had politically idiosyncratic views, and -- though Bagge never uses the word -- seems to be as close to a libertarian as a black woman could be in the early Twentieth Century. So all is much clearer now.

Like Woman Rebel, his biography of Margaret Sanger, Fire!! tells the long, event-filled story of one woman's life in probably too-few comics pages (seventy-two, in this case), so that every page or two is a discreet event that Bagge needs to get into his narrative. There are twenty-six pages of notes to contextualize and explain the comics pages, which does not make for the most smooth or integrated reading experience. (I wonder if Fire!! will have its best life in classrooms and school libraries -- it's a solid look at an important literary-historical figure in a format that will appeal to a lot of kids who don't want to read too much.)

In case you don't know, Hurston was a writer, published as a novelist and a collector of folklore, active mostly in the 1930s and '40s and associated with the Harlem Renaissance in New York during the early part of that time. She grew up in an all-black town in central Florida, the somewhat wild and somewhat coddled daughter of two of the leading figures in that town, to the age of thirteen, when her mother died and upended her life entirely. Her next decade or so was spent all over, in often rough circumstances, but she eventually finished high school in her late 20s (having shaved a decade off her age to pretend to still be a teen) and bounced through several colleges before landing at Barnard College in 1925 and graduating three years later at the age of 37. (Still pretending to be ten years younger, which she kept up the rest of her life.)

She's most famous these days for Their Eyes Were Watching God, her semi-autobiographical 1937 novel. But she was spent years on the road collecting and writing local folklore stories, first in the rural US South and then in several Carribbean nations. And she was a very colorful character, to put it mildly -- boisterous, demanding, flamboyant, opinionated, married multiple times, profoundly original and unique.

Bagge does some justice to Hurston, and all of his pages are good. But, like Woman Rebel, Fire!! feels rushed and cramped, like what's left of five pounds of flour after it's been dumped into a two-pound sack. His story would have been seriously improved by either focusing on a particular period of Hurston's life, or by giving the narrative more pages to breathe and consequently some space that isn't just hurtling from one major event to another.

Fire!! will be a boon to thousands of young people looking to write a short biographical paper on someone important -- young people still do that, don't they? And it's a nice reminder of a fine writer who was also a deeply interesting and grumpily particular person. But I do wish it was more than that, because it could have been.