Saturday, March 24, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #83: You & A Bike & A Road by Eleanor Davis

What is this book about?

Well, the title is You & A Bike & A Road. It's by Eleanor Davis. It was published by Koyama Press in May 2017.

The outside of the book will tell you no more. Opening it doesn't give much more information -- some legalese on the copyright page, and more of the pretty cover scenery on the French flaps.

The only way to know what You & A Bike & A Road is about is to read it. But it's a comic, so reading it is easy. You might as well just jump in and see what you find.

The same spirit drove Davis to try to bike from her parents' home in Tucson, Arizona to her home in Atlanta, Georgia. Her father had just built her a bike, so why not ride it back? Why not draw a couple of pages each day along the way, and see what comes of it?

So this is a travelogue, of what Davis hoped would be a month or two of biking across the southwest and southeast US, starting March 16, 2016. Davis works in what looks like soft pencils, and gives us an impressionistic view of days on the road -- knee pain, headwinds, flowers, friendly fellow bikers, and the omnipresent Border Patrol. It was over two thousand miles, but she sets off in good spirits: alone but happy to see the world and push against it for a while.

Any travel book is as much about its creator as the territory covered, and You & A Bike & A Road is no exception. Davis was riding alone, camping alone, spending most of her days alone with her thoughts and her bike beneath her. That'll lead to a lot of introspection, a lot of thinking.

You & A Bike & A Road is a lovely, thoughtful book, as much a meditation on life and physical activity as anything else. Davis makes great pictures and thinks serious thoughts -- and is open enough to meet people and learn about the landscapes she travels through. This book is as wide and open as the desert and as welcoming as the people you meet. If you see it, pick it up, even if you're not sure what it is.

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.