Friday, February 23, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #54: Lucky Penny by Ananth Hirsh and Yuko Ota

To be a sad sack, a character has to be sad. If she's just as put-upon by life, but has a chipper attitude the whole time, she turns into something else. I'm not sure if we have a name for that something else, but maybe we can start calling her a Lucky Penny.

Penny Brighton would be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl if she were a supporting character in someone else's story, but Lucky Penny is her story, so she's just manic. She's also a mess, but it's not entirely clear how much of that is her fault. In a fictional universe, luck can be a real thing that molds lives, and maybe Penny is just cursed to fail every single luck roll.

Her book is Lucky Penny; it's a comedy in graphic novel form -- not quite a romantic comedy, closer to a comedy of errors. It's by writer Ananth Hirsh and cartoonist Yuko Ota, who work together regularly and also appear to be a couple.

It opens with Penny, who is somewhere in her twenties but not precisely an adult, losing her clothing-retail job and her apartment in the same day. (The apartment should have been a longer-term issue, since her roommate Helen is moving away to get married, but I get the sense that Penny doesn't make "plans" the way other people do.) So, since her judgment and adult skills are so good, she moves into Helen's vacated storage unit (cheap!) and cajoles Helen into getting her a job at the family-owned laundromat, where she will be bossed by Helen's kid brother David. (I can just barely believe in a laundromat that has one person working there full-time, to watch it, but two at once? That doesn't seem right. What do you do working in a laundromat?)

Penny is energetic and lackadaisical and would be happy-go-lucky if she consistently was lucky or had more things to be happy about. But either her own lack of adult skills or the weight of the universe continually throws obstacles in her way -- luckily for her and us, this is a comedy, so they're funny obstacles. She does fail to plan for a lot of things -- how will she stay warm in that unheated storage unit? how will she handle showers and other bodily needs living there? what kind of security does a roll-up door provide when you're inside it? is she saving up to get an actual apartment? does she go shopping for food ever, or just live on her own manic pixie energy? -- but, again, this is a comedy, so I should just relax.

And it is funny. Penny is a Weeble -- she gets bounced around, but nothing in this particular fictional universe can actually knock her down. This is not the story of how she learns adult skills and finds a sensible apartment that she can afford, and starts taking night classes in double-entry accounting to get her foot on the ladder of success. It is the story of how she meets a cute guy at the community center, tries to scam him to get free shows, and ends up dating him in the end. Oh, and saves him from her evil boss's plot of destruction, because Lucky Penny makes a hard left turn into another, but equally silly, genre at the end.

This is not a book to take seriously. Penny is a world-class goofball, and her world has strong goofball tendencies to begin with. And that ending genre-switch comes totally out of nowhere. But it is funny and amusing: Hirsh's dialogue and captions are smart, and Ota is a fine cartoonist of moods and manic energy.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #53: Spinning by Tillie Walden

The cliche is that you need to spend 10,000 hours doing something to get good at it. But what if you get good, and then realize you don't like it? And what if those hours started when you were five or six years old, before you really had a choice?

Tillie Walden was a competitive skater for twelve years, quitting near the end of high school. So that first choice wasn't hers. But somewhere along the line, it became her choice, as it always does -- no one does something seriously and competitively for a decade by accident. And no one stops doing it by accident, either.

Spinning is Walden's first major work of comics: it pretty much has to be, since she was born in 1996. But maybe the same drive that kept her getting up at four in the morning for practice all those years is what motivated her to write and draw these four hundred pages. Spinning exists because Walden was a competitive skater: not just in the trivial way that this is the story she's telling, but in the deep sense that she's the person who can look at her life this intensely and turn it into art because she did something difficult and taxing and demanding for so long at such a high level. Most people don't work that hard before they turn eighteen; a lot never work that hard at all.

Walden tells the story of her skating life starting with its big dislocation: her family moved from New Jersey to Texas at the end of her elementary school years, when she was already serious about skating and part of a competitive synchro team. Her life wasn't wonderful in New Jersey, with a nasty coach and relentless bullying in public school, but it was the only life she knew. Everything was different in Texas -- private school, different names for skating routines, a whole different competitive landscape. But Walden still did well, on the ice as she didn't, quite, in school.

We all need something we can be good at. Especially if we feel isolated and alienated to begin with. And Walden did: not just a Jersey kid in Texas, but a girl who realized early on that she was attracted to other girls, in a family and among schoolmates and fellow skaters who she knew would not understand or support her. Walden's first love was a fellow skater; she tells that story here, touchingly. She was forced out of the closet, earlier than she wanted, by the forced break-up of that relationship, and got none of the love and support she deserved.

Spinning is about skating, but skating is just the lens: it's about Tillie Walden, and how she grew up and started deciding what she wanted for herself. She was gay. She wasn't going to go to college. She wanted to draw and tell stories. And, finally, she was done with skating.

It is frankly amazing that Spinning is Walden's first long story, that she has this level of control of her art and story at the beginning of her career, that she has this distance and clarity about her own life so early. Spinning is a major graphic memoir, full stop -- not just good for a first book, not just good with qualifiers. From the evidence here, Tillie Walden is a major talent: smart, hard-working, tenacious, with a relentless eye and a light, Adrian Tomine-like line. I hope to keep reading great comics from her for the next forty years or more.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #52: Bizarro Heroes by Dan Piraro

There's not a whole lot to say about this book as a book, so it might be time for some Book-A-Day behind-the-scenes. You see, to keep the hopper fed -- especially early in the year, which sets the tone and energy for the whole project -- I'm making sure to read at least one book a day, and that generally means a book of comics. (Call it a graphic novel or a bande dessinee or a tankobon or a trade paperback or whatever you want: a book-format work of comics.)

Actually, so far, every single day it is a book of comics. Some other things, too, on top of that, but the one book every single day is comics. (I've got a book going in the smallest room of the house, one going by the bed, and one going here next to my computer, and I'm also reading a "real" book of prose every week, but the comics are the day-in, day-out engine that keeps this running.)

Sometimes I plan to read a particular book: I'm working through my longer graphic novels right now, for instance. But I might find, as I did one day recently, that it's deep into the evening and I haven't touched that book. So it's late and I'm tired, but I want to keep the engine going. For times like that, I have a few things I know I can read quickly.

One of them was Bizarro Heroes, a 2011 collection of Bizarro comics by Dan Piraro with a superhero theme in one way or another. Bizarro is a single-panel daily cartoon anyway, with no continuity, so it's all one-off jokes to begin with. So it would be the perfect strip to birth a series of one-off thematic books like this -- get some intern earning "college credit" to tag all ten-thousand-plus strips in a database, input some search criteria, and prepare to pump out product.

Sadly, the era for one-off thematic books (Bizarro Golf! Bizarro Tennis! Bizarro Smug Vegetarianism! Bizarro Inexplicable Melancholy!) ended not too long after Piraro launched Bizarro in 1985, and his obsessions were never all that in tune with mass America to begin with. So I don't think the glorious era of themed Bizarro books ever got off the ground. But this one does exist, and superheroes are even hotter now than they were in 2011.

Bizarro Heroes is about what you'd expect: a hundred pages of comics, generally one to a page, all with jokes about superheroes. Piraro knows the obvious stuff, but clearly isn't a superhero geek: he makes a Batman/Manbat joke that shows he didn't know there was an actual Man-Bat in the Batman comics. So these are sometimes jokes about other things using superheroes, sometimes jokes about how superheroes are silly, and sometimes jokes about the usual furniture of capes and secret identities. About half of the cartoons are in color; the rest are black and white. They seem to be entirely from the decade before the book -- I found some dated as early as 2000, but they mostly come from 2007-2010.

If you're in the market for a book of single-panel cartoons about superheroes, you probably don't have many choices. Even with the lack of competition, though, this is a pretty good choice -- as long as you aren't so much more geeky than Piraro that his lack of geekitude will annoy you (and there definitely are plenty of guys like that; you'll know if you are one).

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #51: Black Kiss and Black Kiss 2 by Howard Chaykin

Nearly all of us like sex in our own personal lives. (A few years ago, I would have just said "all of us," but I'm coming to think there's nothing that's true for "all of us." Still, liking sex is about as close as it gets.)

But narrative art about sex is only very rarely as positive as we are in our own lives. Maybe it's because people having sex happily has a tendency to devolve into porn, or because art requires conflict, but the "erotic thriller" is much more common than the "erotic comedy" -- comedies about sex keep the sex as a joke and hidden behind those multiple slamming doors, not front and center. And cautionary stories about sex causing bad things are even more common than that.

Howard Chaykin is no exception: his most famous comics about sex are Black Kiss from 1988 and it's belated prequel/follow-up Black Kiss 2 from 2013, and there's very little happy sex in either of them. Oh, a lot of people get it on, pan-sexually, over and over again, but a lot of that sex is rape, a big chunk of the rest isn't terribly consensual, and a hell of a lot of people get killed during or after getting it on. (There are also serious arguments to be made that the Black Kiss stories are transphobic, or just plain sexist/misogynistic, but I won't make those arguments here. And a lot of that desire mixed with disgust for femininity is baked into the "erotic thriller" concept to begin with -- I don't know if that excuses anything, but it's inherent in the genre.)

Some of that is down to Chaykin, though: the first Black Kiss marks the moment when his early cynicism (as seen in projects like American Flagg!) curdled into sourness and his essential plot for the next several decades solidified into a cliche: the up-for-anything Jewish guy (with a big dick) gets caught up in something horrible, is tormented by at least one blonde vixen, and then generally kills her (and maybe several others) to escape with the brunette girl, who is more eager to follow his lead. In Black Kiss, that guy is Cass Pollack, a small-time jazz musician who we never see actually playing an instrument. (I am studiously avoiding making a joke on "instrument" here.)

Unusually for Chaykin, we don't open with Cass but with Dagmar Laine, a blonde trans* woman who is the lover of (and dead ringer for) faded movie star Beverly Grove. Laine appears to be the smart, organized one of the two, masterminding a complicated plot to get back a scandalous movie of Bev from a priest, while Bev rampages around, usually dead drunk and having dangerous sex with nearly everyone she meets. The plot goes wrong, of course, as a secret society and the usual nasty crooked cops get involved, and the movie is not destroyed as expected. Bev runs into Cass, on the run from those crooked cops for a mostly unrelated reason, and Cass is drawn into the pan-sexual orgy that is Dagmar and Bev's lives. As I said above, a lot of people have sex, occasionally by choice, and some of them even live to enjoy themselves afterward. But it's not the way to bet.

In the end, there's a shocking secret, more death, and anyone who's read a Chaykin story knows who walks out alive in the end.

Black Kiss 2 drops back to 1906 to give the backstory of that shocking secret, moving forward seven to ten years (most of the time) for each of its dozen ten-page chapters. The sex is more explicit here -- Chaykin avoided drawing genitalia and penetration in 1988, but not in 2013 -- but just as dreary and unpleasant, a relentless parade of nasty people doing nasty things to each other and the occasional innocent. We do learn Bev's full history, and Dagmar's -- all of the Dagmars, since there have been several -- and finally the plot catches up to the original Black Kiss and brings it up to the present day, with all of the dreary coercive sex intact.

The two Black Kiss books accomplish the difficult task of making sex seem deeply unpleasant and horrible: giving them to young impressionable people would be one of the best ways I know of making lifelong celibates. From these stories, no one could ever guess that sex is something people do together, or even that human beings are able to feel positive emotions for each other, once in a while. The pictures are well-done, I guess: scratchy noir blondes in expensive lingerie romping in vividly imagined spaces, with gouts of black blood at regular intervals for spice.

I can't actually recommend these books. If you're interested in Chaykin -- and you might well be; he's an interesting and deeply talented comics creator, both as a writer and an artist -- you do need to read them at some point; they channel a pure id Chaykin unlike anything else. But I really hope you don't enjoy them: to do that, I think, you need to identify too much with the sexual predators here.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #50: The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate Ascher

What makes a city work? Well, the easy answer is "people," but there are much more complicated answers about systems and expert knowledge and technology and history and infrastructure.

Those bigger answers can very quickly get beyond the understanding of laymen, but they don't have to. It's possible to explain what makes a city work on a level we all can understand. Kate Ascher did it, a little more than a decade ago, anatomizing the various central systems of New York City in The Works: Anatomy of a City.

My guess is that one of the bookclubs offered The Works back around 2005, when it was published -- probably Book-of-the-Month Club, since it's got that kind of high-minded seriousness to it -- and those days I was in a mode of grabbing every book that looked like it could possibly be of interest. (It was a glorious time: books were everywhere, I could grab more than I could read, and nothing had ever happened to take books away from me. Things changed, of course.) I finally read it this year, when as part of my Book-A-Day exercises I took a hard look at that lower shelf with coffee-table books that I haven't touched in at least five years.

Some of the details in The Works are probably out of date, particularly since Ascher included a section at the end on then-current plans to upgrade or repair the various systems, and those plans are now either accomplished or abandoned. (Farewell, ARC tunnel!) But I expect the general plan is still correct: a city with hundred-plus-year-old water mains doesn't change overnight.

Ascher divided her look at NYC infrastructure into five big chapters: Moving People (streets, subways, bridges, tunnels), Moving Freight (by rail or ship or air, plus a section on markets), Power (electricity, natural gas, and the yes-they-still-use-it surprise of steam), Communications (phone, mail, and wireless spectrum), and Keeping It Clean (water, sewage, and garbage). That's a lot of systems, many of which interrelate -- trash travels by barge on the waterways and conduits can carry more than one kind of pipe or wire.

The Works is a well-designed, highly visual book, with useful sidebars on every page and clean, easily-understandable graphics. Ascher's acknowledgements credit the design and imagery to Alexander Isley, George Kokkinidis, and a larger team, so they should get a lot of the love for making this an easy book to view and understand.

It's fashionable these days to hate on urban-dwellers, but cities are where most economic activity happens, and the engines of the modern world. Even if you have to drive your pick-up fifty miles to the closest Wal-Mart to go grocery shopping, The Works is a useful, informative book that explains how the vital infrastructure of the modern world operates in one of the most demanding environments today.


Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/17/18

Welcome back to the weekly Antick Musings post about whatever new books have wandered close enough for me to take a look at them. Once upon a time, I only listed things I got free in the mail, as part of Big Book Publishing's publicity efforts, but why limit myself? So now it's more varied, depending on what happened that week.

This time out, I've gotten a few books form the library, and these are they:

Romeo And/Or Juliet is a Choose-Your-Adventure version of the Shakespeare play, rewritten by Ryan North and illustrated by a whole lot of people. I've played the game version of North's previous iteration of the same idea, To Be Or Not To Be, and that was fun. I did think this was more deeply in comics format than it actually is: it's a regular mostly-text book with about 400 pages and 500 numbered text sections, but it does have a bunch of illustrations.

Brief Histories of Everyday Objects was a webcomic (by Andy Warner) that ended just about as soon as I discovered it, which is right about my luck. I think it ended because Warner got the book deal, and needed to save his cartooning efforts for this paid gig, but I could be wrong. Anyway, the book eventually appeared, I intended to read it for a long time, and now it looks like I will.

Kaijumax: Season Two is the second collection of Zander Cannon's giant monster prison movie in comics form, and I guess this means I've given up on actually seeing and buying this series in an actual store. (The problem with the modern world is that you can get anything you desperately want delivered immediately, but things you want to check out or aren't as immediately focused on just don't show up anywhere at all near you.) Anyway, I liked the first volume, and now I've got the second one, even if it took library systems in two states to do it.

The Best American Comics 2013 is a five-year-old book in a series I thought I was going to keep better track of. Well, you know what kind of road-building happens from good intentions. This one was edited by Jeff Smith -- all of the "Best American" books have series editors, who do the initial cull to get a long list of good stuff, and one-off yearly star editors, who select the final contents most from that long list.

And last is a new comics version of Beowulf, by Santiago Garcia and David Rubin. The book itself isn't clear about their roles: did one write and one draw? One layout, the other do finishes, and the first come back Marvel-style to do the dialogue? Did they work simultaneously on the same pages and argue about wording? Did they swap out days, on working Monday-Wednesday-Friday and the other Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday? I simply don't know, and I'm running out of silly options to pretend to care about. However they did it, they adapted the Old English poem into comics, and Image published it as a big hardcover.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #49: A Pelican at Blandings by P.G. Wodehouse

In 1969, I was busy being born and learning such important things as object permanence. But P.G. Wodehouse was at the other end of a long productive life, with nearly a hundred books behind him and a worldwide adoring fanbase. (Practically the only thing we had in common was that we both lived in New York State -- he on Long Island, me up in Albany.)

That has nothing to do with anything, but we do like to try to connect ourselves to our favorite authors, don't we? And Wodehouse is definitely one of mine: he found something he could do well and elevated light comedy to brilliance over and over again across more than seventy years. His work ethic was hugely admirable, his devotion to craft was amazing, and the results are just as purely entertaining now as they ever were.

A Pelican at Blandings was his new novel for 1969, that year I was born. (In the US, it was originally titled No Nudes Is Good Nudes, because it was the late sixties, and something had to be titled that.) It wasn't quite his last novel, either -- Wodehouse in his eighties was down from his earlier pace of production, but he was still good for a novel nearly every year, and had five more novels still to come after Pelican (plus one close enough to completion that it was published after his death in 1975).

As the title implies, this is a Blandings Castle story featuring Galahad (famously of the Pelican Club). The plot, as usual with Wodehouse, is almost beside the point: one of Lord Emsworth's domineering sisters returns from America for an unwanted visit, along with an even less pleasant friend, the Duke of Dunstable. Young lovers are sundered by their elders' meanness and unfortunate circumstances. Several impostors appear at the Castle. A valuable object is stolen, and is the center of several plots. The majestic Empress of Blandings, second-fattest pig in the county, is in danger of losing her appetite. But, in the end, it all turns out all right.

That's the joy of Wodehouse: he crafts intricate worlds full of complication and seeming heartbreak where everything does turn out all right, every time, and makes it sprightly and amusing the whole way. A Wodehouse book is the purest form of escapism, transporting us to a world that never was or could be, no matter how much we wish it did. Pelican is not one of his very best, true -- you can just see a glimpse of the tighter, brilliant book it could have been, with multiple attempts to steal and/or replace that nude painting happening simultaneously -- but it's funny and sunny and entirely plummy. If you haven't read Wodehouse before, what on earth are you waiting for?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #48: Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro, Vols. 4 & 5 by Satoko Kiyuduki

Reading a book at four-year intervals is probably not the best way to keep it in the front of one's mind. But I read the first two volumes of Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro (one and two) back in 2010, and then the third in 2014, so, since it's 2018 now, I couldn't continue any earlier than now, can I?

(It would be nice to have a time machine, but, in real life, "today" is always the earliest anything can be done.)

So here I am in 2018, having just read Volumes Four and Five of Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro, a comic I remember enjoying quite a bit back then. But, this time, I'm not as enthusiastic about Satoko Kiyuduki's world and storyline -- much of the dialogue feels like a lot of pseudo-philosophical windiness that doesn't actually say anything (that could be translation issues, though, or lack of cultural context on my part) and the vertical 4-koma format (except for some pages that read right-to-left like regular manga, to trip me up) forces every interaction and conversation into the same four-box structure with a punch-line-like zinger at the end.

Kuro is a young woman, but precisely how young is difficult to say. She's drawn to look pre-teen, but that could just be a style. She was cursed by a witch, for reasons and in a way that still isn't entirely clear at this point, and has to wander the world, lugging her coffin, until she either becomes a witch herself or dies. (As finally becomes semi-explicit in these volumes.) This is not nearly as dramatic as you're hoping it will be. Instead, she does a lot of vague talking about what it means to be a traveler, except when other characters are saying similar, and if possible even vaguer, things.

We also get an origin for that witch -- I think; it's someone's origin and it's not Kuro's -- somewhere in the middle here. It's sad but vaguely pointless, unless meant to underline that life is arbitrary and capricious and that everything kinda sucks. The witch is also traveling, though she doesn't have strong opinions on the subject the way other characters do. And they're traveling through vaguely fantasy-ish lands, nowhere in particular and far away from cities and large groups of people and anything particularly exciting.

Kuro does occasionally wander through pieces of other stories along her travels, but she's always at the center: everyone is happy to stop whatever they're doing to engage in long conversations with the little girl lugging her own coffin. Late in the second volume, someone actually tries to kill Kuro, which at least adds a bit of variety. It doesn't take, of course.

Kuro is not as mopey as she could be: she's more dogged, in that essential manga way, devoted to keeping on moving forward and being as positive as she can be until something new happens. That's encouraging, but I still wanted things to happen here, and not just have a moment of "oh, gosh, we all perceive this area differently! isn't that odd" before Kuro and her companions move on.

So: the 4-koma format is inherently episodic and distancing, and is tending to make Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro spin its wheels through the same few philosophical thoughts at this point in its life. And sometimes mysteries are much more enticing than their solutions: I think this is a fine example of that effect. The fact that this book is published at really long intervals -- a sixth volume, I see, just came out last fall -- doesn't help much, either.