Monday, December 11, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/9

I have thoroughly run out of ways to open this weekly post, so now each Sunday I sit and stare blankly at a computer screen, hoping to think of another way to say the same thing once again. Eventually, I write something like this, and I can keep going. But I want to warn you that, some day, I might just give up and never be seen again.

But not this week!

This time out, I got one book in the mail, so I can tell you about that. It's Mississippi Roll, the twenty-fourth book in the long-running shared universe "Wild Cards" series. This one is credited as edited by George R.R. Martin, who has been running the whole shebang since 1987's Wild Cards. (Always, I think, aided to one degree or another by Melinda M. Snodgrass, whose credit appears and disappears semi-randomly.) Wild Cards is set in a universe where first contact was made soon after WW II in a rather unpleasant way: an alien spaceship set off a "gene bomb" that caused mayhem worldwide. If I remember the percents correctly, 90% of the people affected just died immediately. Then about 90% of the survivors were hideously deformed in one way or another, becoming "Jokers." About 1%, then, got at least somewhat useful superpowers and still looked like normal human beings. I'm not quite sure how new Jokers and Aces are created at this point in the timeline, sixty-some years later -- maybe the bomb created some endemic pockets of contamination that people stumble into, or if everyone now has some chance of Joker-izing or Ace-ificating at birth or puberty or whenever. But, in any case, this is a world with superheroes, and supervillains, and mutated freaks, and odder things, and has had them for three-plus generations by the start of this book.

Mississippi Roll starts up a new trilogy, which makes it a decent starting point. I personally read the first dozen or so -- all of the Bantam series, which descended into the usual shared-world problem of "my villain is even worse than yours!" iterated several times with body-swapping rapist fiends trying to conquer the world -- and petered out somewhere in that very dark period. I have no idea if the evil body-swapping has died down, but it's been close to two decades and ten more books, so I certainly hope so.

Anyway, this new one is a Tor hardcover and hit stores last week. I used to really like this series, and may dip back into it once again. Maybe you'd like it, too?

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Madwoman of the Sacred Heart by Alexandro Jodorowsky and Moebius

Twenty-some years ago, it was reading a bunch of random Moebius books that convinced me that French comics were all about philosophical bullshit. I've since been convinced otherwise, through the work of Jason and Trondheim and Kerascoet and Vehlmann and a number of others, but damn if this dull turd of a book didn't cut through all of that good stuff with a new load of weapons-grade bullshit, and almost changed my mind back again.

Moebius is not solely responsible for Madwoman of the Sacred Heart. He was just the artist this time out, so he's only responsible for what's good about this book: the clarity of line and real space that the first two-thirds of the book has (before it starts become a cramped mess of way too many small panels stuffed with far too many stupid words). The script here comes from screenwriter and international goofball Alexandro Jodorowsky, well-known for the quality of his philosophical bullshit across several media.

As usual with French comics philosophical bullshit, there's a bunch of religious loonies who talk far too much about things no one is interested in reading about and the one supposedly normal guy at the middle of it all who gets dragged along, presumably to be the audience's view into this "exciting" and "revelatory" and "mind-expanding" warmed-over '60s merde. Unfortunately, the one sane guy in Madwoman is the deeply unlikable Alan Mangel, a massive prick of a philosophy professor who starts the book with a cult-like student following and spends most of it with a diarrhea problem. (No, I am not joking. Much of his dialogue is dedicated to informing the reader that he has shit his pants once again. Lo! How transgressive is Jodorowsky!)

One of Mangel's students decides she's the reincarnation of the mother of John the Baptist -- or something roughly congruent to that -- and that Mangel is the destined father. This of course means there must also be a Joseph (a local pusher) and Mary (daughter of a South American drug baron, currently institutionalized either because she's actually crazy or her father thinks she is), and those four form our merry band of completely insane people, whom the reader is forced to follow for the entire book.

The crazy people aren't interestingly crazy: they're French crazy, which means they make long speeches about the way the universe works and the power of love and their place in the scheme of things and other things that will cause an American reader to lose consciousness rapidly. Even worse, their pseudo-philosophical bullshit seems to be right within the context of the story, inasmuch as it can be understood at all. (Which is not very far.)

So nutty things happen, and the crazy women talk too much. Then more nutty things happen, Mangel shits his pants, and they talk too much again. Repeat for nearly two hundred pages.

Just when you think you've got the rhythm down, we drop into the third section of Madwoman -- I think this was originally three French albums, though this 2011 Humanoids edition doesn't explain that in the slightest -- which is cramped and awkward, and, if this is even possible, more boring and stultifying than the first two. Perhaps Jodorowsky took a look at his notes, realized he still had eighty or ninety pages of philosophical bullshit to cram into fifty comics pages, and told Moebius to draw smaller. Whatever happened, suddenly there are twice as many panels to a page, and the pages are duller -- the one strong point Madwoman had up to that point was Moebius's layouts and art, so clearly that could not be allowed to stand.

This book is the kind of thing that makes you stupider as you read it: it not only wastes your time, but actively destroys brain cells along the way. I cannot in good conscience recommend it for any purpose; the coated paper would make it unsuitable even to use to start a fire. Moebius has done better work -- his "Blueberry" westerns are particularly good, and some of the comics he wrote himself are only slightly tinged with philosophical bullshit. I can't speak for Jodorowsky, but I hope not everything he touches turns out this bad; it would be difficult to sustain a career if that were the case.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Herbie Archives, Volume One by Shane O'Shea and Ogden Whitney

Yeah, it did take me until now to finally read Herbie. It is so much exactly the kind of thing that I would like that the delay seems weird, but it's a big world, and you can only do one thing at a time. I finally got to this particular thing, and can finally talk about it.

But wait! You say. Did I come in the middle of something? What on earth are you going on about?

All right, all right. Herbie Popnecker was the "hero" of a series of stories from the American Comics Group, for about a decade from 1958 through 1967 -- first as one-off stories in anthologies, then as the star of twenty-three issues of his own comic in 64-67. He's a short, fat, torpid, laconic kid with heavy-lidded eyes, a bowl haircut, and a lollipop always in his mouth, whose father is constantly complaining about him and calling him a "little fat nothing." He doesn't like sports or schoolwork or playing with other kids; at home he tends to sit in a straightback chair and doze, and we don't see him at school or interacting with his peers.

So far, so promising for a humor title, right? Sounds just like the thing in the '50s-'60s burst of teen-interest comics, with Archie and Binky and Scooter!

Well, Herbie was more than just a little fat nothing, luckily. He was also world-famous, almost omnipotent, and oddly resourceful. His lollipops gave him superpowers -- this is slightly inconsistent, since sometimes he seems to have power merely because he is Herbie -- and his aid is regularly sought by US Presidents and UN Secretary-Generals. Gorgeous women swoon at his approach. Vicious animals flee when they realize who he is. He travels in time, via lollipop and a flying boat-like grandfather clock, and can walk under the oceans and across empty space to reach distant planets.

And, if threatened, all he needs to do is ask "You want I should bop you with this here lollipop?" Herbie's bop is a force that can frighten the greatest forces in the universe -- in just this book, we see suns, dragons, and Satan himself cowed by it.

That is one weird mix of elements, and it doesn't seem like it should work. But ACG editor Richard E. Hughes (writing as "Shane O'Shea") kept a deadpan tone around Herbie, making it all strangely plausible. And Ogden Whitney drew all of the stories in a solid, straightforward style -- both of them as if to drain any possible insinuation of imagination out of the stories, as if to prove Herbie's adventures must be plausible if they are this normal-seeming.

It worked. It still works, now: some elements are a little outdated (the supernatural creatures are somewhat comic-booky and of their time), but most of Herbie is unique and sui generis. And many individual panels are still laugh-out-loud funny after fifty-plus years.

The first third of the Herbie stories were collected in 2008 as Herbie Archives, Volume One, which is what I finally read. There are two more volumes, collecting the rest of the Herbie stories, which I now need to dig up and read. If you like weird comics, you probably already know about Herbie. If you've never read him, you'll probably want to move him up in the queue -- this is still really good stuff, nutty and crazy in all the best midcentury ways.


Monday, December 04, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/1

This time of year, a lot of businesses slow down, under the weight of holiday parties and darkness-induced depression and everyone's sudden desire to use their vacation days before they lose them. [1] Book publishing can be like that, since it relies on getting product out into retail outlets (physical or digital) and then trying to drive consumer interest.

Which is a long way round to saying that I don't have any new books to write about this week, and I'm not expecting the weeks between now and the end of the year will be any more fruitful.

But I know I have far more books than I can read in any reasonable time (probably 3-5 years worth, even if I was back up at my reading prime), so not getting new ones if not a huge burden. And there will be new books eventually: there always are.

So check back next week to see if "eventually" has come around yet.


[1] Some businesses, or portions of businesses, actually speed up, especially sales organizations with a calendar year-end. My current employer has pieces like that, but they're mostly too busy to even engage with other departments (like me) at this time of year.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick's last big collection of short stories was 2007's The Dog Said Bow-Wow, which somewhat explains the title of last year's Not So Much, Said the Cat.

(Note: there may be a talking cat somewhere in this book, and possibly even one that says "Not so much." But I can't recall what story that cat could possibly be in, so I will leave this as a possibility rather than a reality.)

It collects seventeen stories -- some may actually be novelettes, but none seem long enough to be novellas -- originally published in this last decade. Close to a majority came from Asimov's, but others were in F&SF, on Tor.com, and in various anthologies. So it is possible that a very assiduous SFnal reader could have read all of these already -- perhaps more likely if that reader were a big Swanwick fan -- but it's not very likely.

As I've said several times before: there are two ways to write about a book full of short fiction: you can either (as I did for many years at the SFBC, writing internal reader's reports) run down story-by-story, giving thumbnail plot descriptions and canned literary judgments, or you can talk vaguely about the book as a whole. "Real" reviewers tend to do the latter, and not just because it's easier -- the former tends towards the tedious and unnecessary at the best of times. So I stick to the easy style these days, and not just because I don't read with a notebook open and full of scribbles anymore. (That's how I read, a lot of the time, for sixteen years. I miss it, now and then, but the feeling passes.)

The stories here are mixed SF and fantasy. I felt it tilted towards a fantasy feeling, but that's in large part because the SF is mostly post-apocalyptic, either part of Swanwick's "Darger and Surplus" series or similarly motivated, with mysterious superpowerful AIs serving as "gods" and "demons" and along the way proving Arthur C. Clarke's famous dictum.

More important than genre -- for me at least, and I hope for any self-respecting reader as well -- is the question of how good the stories are. They're very good: emotionally resonant, pointed and precise, carefully crafted for maximum impact. Swanwick is one of our best short-story writers, in genre or out of it, and this is yet another example of why.

I don't read a lot of short fiction these days -- I read a lot less of everything than I did, back when I read for a living -- so I'm not in any position to say any of you need to read anything in particular. But Swanwick is vital and important and great; if you read SF/fantasy short fiction at all, he's someone to know and keep track of.

Red in November

This might be another slim one: on top of my current issue of figuring out when and how to read when I'm not commuting as much (oh horrors! what a problem to have!), this is a month with a major holiday and a whole lot of college visits with my High School Junior second son.

I might be busy with things that aren't books -- this what I'm saying.

But when I was busy with books, these are the books I was busy with:

Charles M. Schulz, Schulz's Youth (11/1)

S. Gross and Jim Charlton, editors, Books, Books, Books (11/7)

Anonymous, editor, National Lampoon's Truly Sick, Tasteless, and Twisted Cartoons (11/8)

Bill Willingham, Phil Jimenez, and others, Fairest, Vol. 1: Wide Awake (11/14)

John Layman and Rob Guillory, Chew, Vol. 6: Space Cakes (11/15)

Lawrence Block, Campus Tramp (11/15)

Michael Swanwick, Not So Much, Said the Cat (11/17)

Shane O'Shea and Ogden Whitney, Herbie Archives, Vol. 1 (11/28)


Alexandro Jodorowsky and Moebius, Madwoman of the Sacred Heart (11/29)



That was November. As I expected, it was a bit light. I want to read more books, but when I pick up specific books, or try to find time for them, it hasn't been working out lately. Again, if this is the worst problem I have in my life, I'm doing pretty damn well.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Campus Tramp by Lawrence Block

Long, long ago, back when (according to some) America Was Great, sex was mostly outlawed in books, because Greatness meant repression and fear and rigid moral propriety...at least in public. As that Greatness crumbled, largely from pressure from the majority of people (who were not, deliberately, part of that Greatness but instead were marginalized and ignored and outright repressed), books slowly came to include sex, step by painful step. It started with unabashedly literary novels, as it usually does, since those are both easier to defend in front of an old, corrupt judge and generally written in such a way that one's wife or gardener will not quite understand them.

But, as the '40s and '50s marched on, things that were previously red-hot and sold behind the counter migrated onto the regular racks, and the books on the regular racks saw their sex-related vocabulary grow and alter continuously, as new words suddenly became OK to set into type (as long as wives and gardeners were elsewhere). Eventually, everything was permissible, but that didn't happen until the late '60s, roughly. (In books, that is: everything is never permissible in real life, for obvious reasons.)

So there is an entire generation of books that were pushing against the limits of acceptable sex-words, year by year and adjective by adjective, which all seem artificial and stilted to one degree or another today. Some of those are "real" novels -- literary or genre, mimetic or fabulist -- and the sex parts are now mostly quaint reminders of when they were written. But the books that were all about sex then are more interesting -- since the sex they were all about sometimes barely seems like sex to a modern reader.

And thus the red-hots of one generation come to seem cinders to their children. So sad.

Campus Tramp is right in the middle of the transition: published as a sexy but legal paperback in 1960, sold (somewhat furtively) above the counter, but all about the titillation and prurient interest. It was a "sex novel," but one that could be sold on newsstands. And that means that it reads a bit oddly fifty-plus years later -- not just because of the assumed cultural baggage and prejudices of the audience, but because of the word choices and convoluted sentences still required to describe sex at the time.

It's interesting all these years later mostly because it was written by Lawrence Block, who went on to be a major force in the crime-fiction world but at the time was a sometime college student (Antioch, out in the wilds of Ohio) and sometime minor functionary of the not-entirely-honest Scott Meredith Literary Agency. Before Campus Tramp, he'd written four previous sex novels, based mostly from other novels and the kind of ideas a boy of about nineteen has while feverishly typing a sex novel for pay. This book, though, was slightly more connected to reality, the story of a young woman arriving at a college a lot like Antioch and deciding it was time for her to not be a virgin anymore.

Since it was 1959, and Block was writing a sex novel, having sex once did inevitably turn Linda Shepard into both a huge fan of the sex act (in all of its permutations, vaguely described) and a campus resource open to all, but the book is from her point of view, and she mostly has agency. (Even as she runs through Cliche Young Woman Sex Plot #2.) Luckily for the 2017 reader, since Block had not yet become a crime fiction writer, she doesn't turn to crime or meet that sort of bad end. (For many in 1959, her end was as bad as it could possibly be already. This is entirely untrue, and we need to keep that in mind and keep saying so to the enGreatenizers who think we can get back to that 1959.)

This is not a lost gem. It's not a great classic. It's a barely plausible psychological portrait of a young woman, as constructed mostly from outside by a young man who was writing nearly as fast as he could type. But it's a fun, zippy read, and this recent edition has tasteful black-and-white nude pictures to open each chapter and class up the whole thing. And it can be fascinating to a Block fan, or to a student of cultural/sexual history.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Chew, Vol. 6: Space Cakes by John Layman and Rob Guillory

Oh, look -- another comics series I'm still poking my way through, a year or so after it ended! There are ten volumes of the collected Chew, so I'm three or four years behind at this point. I don't see any particular reason to be concerned about this -- not reading a book right when it comes out doesn't harm anything, or cause a single problem -- but I do seem to be doing a lot of it lately.

Anyway: Chew, Vol. 6: Space Cakes. Right smack-dab in the middle of the weird alternate-world detective story by John Layman (words) and Rob Guillory (pictures). See my reviews of volumes one and two and three-through-five (during one of my periodic reviewing bankruptcies) if you care; don't if you don't.

This is a comic-book world, coming out regularly in pamphlet form from a major publisher. And that means that, even if this isn't officially a superhero comic, it will tend to bend in that direction, as a tree growing in a continuous wind will be bent. So this world is, by this point, chock-full of people with weird powers, all of which (this is Chew's particular shtick) are food-related. We started with Tony Chu, who can read the history of something by eating it, and this book focuses on his twin sister Toni, who can see the future of the things she eats.

She works for NASA, another one of the super-powerful government agencies (along with the FDA and USDA) in this alternate world. And she's bubbly and goofy, as befits this goofy series. So, while Tony is in a coma (more or less) Toni takes over for a few issues of culinary mayhem and derring-do. The usual supporting cast runs around doing their thing -- including an included one-shot of the murderous rooster Poyo -- but this is Toni's story.

It's not exactly a good story for her, in the end, but saying more would get into spoiler territory. And the last few pages imply the book will go back to being about Tony, as we'd expect. So this is a big chunk of middle, though it's chewy, flavorful middle, in a banquet where we know exactly when the dessert and brandy will be coming.


Sidebar: Hey, I haven't complained about anyone's ONIX feed for a while! This book was published in January of 2013, and the publisher, Image, still hasn't managed to upload (to the major online stores) a version of the cover with words on it yet. This is appalling, and if I rated books on some kind of a scale, they'd definitely lose points for that.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Fairest, Vol. 1: Wide Awake by Bill Willingham, Phil Jimenez, and others

So, when you're a big corporation devoted to exploiting intellectual property that you've accumulated over the past seven or eight decades, and you have a new piece of IP that's doing decently, what are you going to do?

Exploit it, obviously.

DC Comics [1] didn't own Fables, as far as I know -- I haven't seen the contracts personally, but Vertigo was famously a creator-owned shop -- so that means writer Bill Willingham and artist Mark Buckingham (or maybe just Willingham, because what's comics if not a chance to grab all ownership for yourself?) had to go along with the exploitation as well. But who doesn't like a little tasteful exploitation, especially when it puts money in your pocket?

So Fables begat Jack of Fables, which was never as good as it should have been, but it exploited a fair bit of change back to DC and its creators. And, after that ended, and with Fables still chugging along towards an eventual-but-still-comfortably-in-the-future ending, DC must have been looking for a new way to exploit it.

And what's the most obvious thing to exploit in comics?

Attractive women, obviously. If they're posing wearing not-too-much, all the better.

So, in 2012, DC launched Fairest, featuring sidebar stories about the female fables. And, five years later, I finally read the first collection, Fairest, Vol. 1: Wide Awake. This one collects the initial six-issue story written by Willingham and drawn by Phil Jimenez, plus a single-issue story written by Matthew Sturges and drawn by Shawn McManus. (And, as far as I can tell, Willingham just wrote that first arc -- after that he presumably just OK'd other people's writing and cashed the checks.)

This is basically "what happened to Sleeping Beauty after she was used as a weapon of mass destruction," with Ali Baba and a pre-Frozen Snow Queen as the other components of the main triangle, plus an annoying loquacious Bat-Mite-ish genie and the inevitable Eeeevil Scary Woman Villainess. As is usual with Fables stories, it pretends to be much tougher and nastier than it really is: things work out very well for the good characters and very badly for the bad characters. (Because that is what fiction means, as the man said.)

I understand this series has ended, too, so I don't know if I'll bother to continue. I might just dig up the end of Fables itself -- I missed the last five or six collections. This was entirely pleasant Fables product for the year 2012, but it's pretty disposable now, unless you're someone working through the Fables-verse or deep in a master's thesis on the presentation of fabulistic characters in modern graphic literature.


[1] Every so often, I need to remind people that "DC Comics" stands for "Detective Comics Comics," because that's how I roll. Put it up there with "Amazon AWS."

Monday, November 27, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/25

Welcome to Cyber Monday -- well, at least for North Americans; I'm not sure if the idea of spending lots of money online the first workday after Thanksgiving has penetrated into countries with no actual tradition of Thanksgiving to begin with -- and thanks for interrupting your online-buying frenzy long enough to read words that aren't trying to get you to consume anything.

And even more so this week, since I don't have any books to write about!

(You see, usually I list here any new books I got the previous week, for purchase, publicity outreach, libraries, or any other mechanism. I'm not specifically trying to get you to buy anything, but there is an element of "hey, is this a thing you would like?" which can obviously lead to purchases.)

But, this time out, there's nothing new on the shelf. So I get to shrug and go on with my life -- and now you can do the same. See you next week.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/118

...and away we go!

This week I have three books to write about: first up is The Overneath, a new collection of short fiction by Peter S. Beagle. It collects thirteen stories originally published since 2010 in the usual genre outlets (F&SF, Weird Tales, a number of anthologies), and means Beagle has published more books (three) in the past two years than he has some entire decades ('70s: one; '80s: two). Beagle is a national treasure, though I'm one of the people who thinks his first novel, A Fine and Private Place, is better than The Last Unicorn. In any case, this collection is a trade paperback from his current regular publishers, Tachyon, and is available now in trade paperback form. (And probably in various configurations of electrons as well.)

Also from Tachyon this month is a new short story collection from Jane Yolen, The Emerald Circus. The publisher calls it her first "full-length" collection since 2005's Once Upon a Time (She Said), though I don't know what that means about 2012's The Last Selchie Child. In any case: here are sixteen stories originally published elsewhere, each one with an accompanying new story note (and possibly-not-new poem) from Yolen. It is also available now in trade paperback.

And I also have a debut novel from Kari Maaren this week: Weave a Circle Round, which looks like a Madeleine L'Engle-ish fantasy for (but not restricted to) younger readers. Our heroine Freddy has a weird family, but just wants to make it through high school without any obvious scars. Then an eccentric couple moves in next door, and she quickly finds herself in a very different time and place, where the usual adventures presumably ensue. The publisher (Tor) seems really enthusiastic about this book, and there are glowing quotes from Bruce Coville, Charles de Lint, Marie Brennan, and Jo Walton. It officially goes on sale November 28th in trade paperback, so you can see for yourself in just over a week's time.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Quote of the Week

Something cheery and bright to see you into your weekend....

"The moth don't care if the flame is real
'Cause flame and moth got a sweetheart deal
And nothing fuels a good flirtation
Like need and anger and desperation."
 - Aimee Mann, "The Moth"

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Two Themed Books of Single-Panel Cartoons

So I read two books of themed single-panel cartoons this past week. Since it's hard to write about a bunch of random single-panel cartoons anyway ("Some are funny, some are not. Some are by this person, while others are by this completely different person."), I decided I might as well stick them together into one post to maximize the awkwardness and minimize the number of actual posts on this blog.

I didn't say it was a good decision.

So first up is the clearer model: Books, Books, Books, edited by cartoonist S. Gross and handyman writer/editor Jim Charlton, published by Harper & Row in 1988. The edition I read was paper-over-boards, though I suspect it also exists in paperback form.

Books, Books, Books collects something like a hundred and fifty cartoons, roughly one to each of its un-numbered pages. One is from Playboy, a bunch are from the New Yorker, and the bulk are from places that didn't demand credit here and so didn't get it.

And, yes, they're all about books. Reading them, writing them, shelving them (at home, in libraries, in book stores), thinking about them, and mentioning the names of famous writers in passing. These were mostly contemporary cartoons at the time: there's a lot of Roz Chast, Sidney Harris, and Jack Ziegler, with some Eldon Dedini and at least one Charles Addams reaching back further.

There are obviously no gags about ebooks or Amazon here -- this is more like the world I started working in just a few years later, where the bookstores have big tables up front with stacks of books. I found this mostly funny, in a slightly New Yorker-y way: a few cartoons are arch, or require some knowledge of an author or the book world, but most are just jokes readers would get. It does what it sets out to do; this is what I'm saying.

The other book was a bit weirder: National Lampoon's Truly Sick, Tasteless, and Twisted Cartoons, published in paperback by contemporary Books in 2002 with no imprint on the spine, no price anywhere, and no editor listed. (So this may have been a special publication for some reason -- maybe one of the periodic attempts to revitalize the eternally-dying NatLamp brand.)

From the copyright page and internal evidence -- viz: the fact that page numbers start from 7, run to 128, disappear for about 120 pages, start up again at 7 and ruin to 128 again -- I believe this is a compilation of three books originally published in 1992, 1994, and 1995. So my guess is that it incorporates '92's Truly Tasteless Cartoons, '94's That's Sick, and '95's Truly Twisted  Cartoons. The book itself explains none of this: there are three cartoons on the back cover, a title page, and a copyright page, but otherwise no text. (The first numbered page -- that first "page 7" -- is actually page 3 of this book.)

And, yes, the theme here is bad taste, as was traditional for NatLamp. The first book (section?) has the best of the '70s era -- not that it's all good, but it's memorable and generally the strongest work from that era. The second book is second-tier stuff from the same era, mostly -- what was left in the vault for a second go-round. And the third book is rougher and newer work, with a bunch of things that don't quite gel but are clearly trying to be offensive. I thought NatLamp was solidly dead by 1995, but these could easily be cartoons from the sputtering last days of the magazine in the 1980s. (I thought I kept reading it to the end, and I don't remember these cartoons or, mostly, their cartoonists, but that doesn't prove anything.)

So what we have here is a book created for a now-unknown commercial opportunity, out of three earlier books that were pretty much just ransacking the vaults of a basically-defunct magazine. The stench of product is all over it -- but if that makes it any more tasteless, how could we possibly complain?

Most of the jokes are juvenile, though many of them are at least arguably funny. They run the gamut, starting with lots of sex jokes (particularly deviant sex and a fair bit of oh-ho-aren't-gay-people-hilarious) and running through bodily fluids, death, and dismemberment. Once again I'm reminded how much Rodrigues focused on amputees and S. Gross on blind men: both are well-represented here.

If you're too young to have read NatLamp in the '70s, there are many things in this book that will offend you. If you did read NatLamp then...you'll probably still be offended by many cartoons, though more likely the half-baked ones towards the end that lazily poke a sensibility without making a good joke out of it. No matter who you are, many of these cartoons will not strike you as funny now, and some of them were never funny for any conceivable sane human being.

But they all are "Truly Sick, Tasteless, and Twisted," which is what we were promised. So good work to the entirely uncredited drones who assembled this in '92 and '94 and '95 and '02. You did your jobs, boys -- oh, you know they were all boys, whatever their ages -- and produced what you were asked to produce. Can we all say the same?

Monday, November 13, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/11

This is one of those weeks where I don't have any books to mention -- nothing came in the mail, I didn't pick up anything at the library, and I haven't even bought books in a while. (I keep looking at the unread shelves and calculating how long it will take to go through all of them.)

So this post is pointless this week: there's nothing to list.

Next week may well be different, so I hope you come back then.

You may now continue your usual Monday morning routine.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Quote of the Week

This song came on in the car one morning recently, and I was struck by how well this middle verse paints a picture of a moment:

"It's been years since I moved away
But at Christmas I come home
And I saw her reflection
In the window of a store
She was talking to herself
Not too simple and not too kind
I walked on by, it was complicated
And it stuck in my mind"
 - They Might Be Giants, "She Thinks She's Edith Head"

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Schulz's Youth by Charles M. Schulz

Success can take a while to be really obvious. Charles M. Schulz launched the daily strip Peanuts in 1950, and eventually it became a massive world-wide phenomenon that took up all of his time and required a number of helpers to do the ancillary work. (Schulz famously wrote every word, drew every line and lettered every panel of Peanuts from beginning to end.)

But, later that decade, he was still doing other odd projects, just in case that daily strip didn't keep growing. One of those projects was a weekly single-panel cartoon for Youth magazine, which he did from 1956 through 1965, mostly under the title "Young Pillars." Youth was the teen-outreach arm of something called the Church of God, which is described as a "religious movement" but probably was a more traditional evangelical organization, with some flavor of Protestant theology behind it. (A movement is not a single thing, and can't be "headquartered," as the Church of God was, "in Anderson, Indiana.") Those strips were collected and re-used and re-purposed over the years, and eventually all brought together in their original form as the book Schulz's Youth in 2007.

So the first thing to note is that these are supposedly humorous cartoons commissioned by a church group, which automatically limits the scope of their humor. (Even the most liberal church puts a lot of things off-limits, and it looks like the Church of God was a vaguely middle-of-the-road mid-century American Protestant organization.) And it's all about good, honest, upstanding church-going teens, so jokes about then-current teen topics like juvenile delinquency were Right Out.

What we get, instead, is a parade of inoffensive mildly amusing cartoons about very bland whitebread Middle America boys and girls, whom even Archie and Scooter would think are a little dull. Not all of the jokes are about "stewardship" and singing in the choir and collection plates and bible commentaries and church picnics and Sunday school...but a whole lot of them are, and calling many of them "jokes" is stretching the word inordinately. These are mostly pleasant drawings of pleasant young Christians being pleasant and doing pleasant things either vaguely church-related or, at the very least, entirely acceptable to a 1950s church for white people.

Did I mention how white and Middle America this book is? It's like a concentrated dose of 1954 directly to the vein, from a world that had not yet discovered irony. It is the book equivalent of a covered dish.

Schulz's drawing is generally good, though some of his adults suffer from really gigantic heads -- maybe because he was trying to differentiate them from the teens. I think the main audience is Schulz scholars and particularly artists who want to study his line -- Peanuts was all the same kind of thing for long stretches, but Schulz's Youth has offices and jalopies and weenie roasts and various bits of ecclesiastical architecture, besides the obvious gangly Schulz teens, who are somewhat like his Peanuts kids but interesting and appealing in their own way.

But if you are a bland Midwestern white Christian offended with The Way Things Are Nowadays, this book may be just the warm bath you want to sink into and forget that other kinds of people actually exist and want to have a say in the world, too.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Collected Hutch Owen, Vol. 1 by Tom Hart

Sometimes you can see someone's ideals collide with reality in real-time. It's most common when looking at a collection of works originally created over several years by someone really politically committed and idealistic -- starting out strident and confident, and then getting knocked about by life.

It's not a happy thing. But the world doesn't fit any ideals we have of it, so it's a necessary process for some people -- to learn that their dreams aren't shared by everyone, and that the world is often as horrible as it can possibly be and never as good as it can possibly be.

So, yeah: Tom Hart's The Collected Hutch Owen. (The "Volume One" is a bit odd, since there haven't been any further volumes in the seventeen years since -- though there have been other book-length stories about Hutch.) It came out in 2000, collecting four thirty-some-page stories from the '90s about a rabble-rousing street poet named, obviously, Hutch Owen.

In the first two stories, his antagonist is a cartoonish business leader, the kind who wants to cut down a grove of pristine trees just to have a place to park his blimp before a parade. (As in: that literally is one piece of that story.) That guy disappears in the back half of the book, as Hutch or Hart grapples with the fact that most people don't want to live in a shack in the woods with no heat, light or running water, printing poetry and trying to sell it on the streets. And that's pretty much what Hutch has to offer: absolute, uncompromising autonomy, unconnected to anyone else except through his art, a lifestyle that five seconds of thought will prove is not something that can scale up to more than one single hard-headed goofball.

Hutch doesn't see it that way because Hutch can't see it that way: his whole point is to kick against the pricks, and Hart set him up to have the maximum number of pricks to kick against. (Going to work at a regular job, as we see, is betrayal of all ideals. I suppose getting married, living in a real house or having children would be tantamount to treason to Hutch.)

Hutch is exhausting, on the page as he would be in real life. He's too earnest, too strident, too in love with his pure vision of what life should be, and utterly unable to make any compromises or understand anyone else's point of view. You're either him or a sellout.

I suspect that pose got harder for Hart to work with as he got older himself: Hutch is cartoonishly successful in the first story and semi-realistically battered down by the last one. But there always new young idealistic people: the universe creates them every day. So there will always be another Hutch Owen to bang his head against the world until he realizes how good it feels to stop.

(The hope, always, is that the head-banging will change the world for the better along the way. Over the long term, that may be true, but in the long term, we're also all dead.)

Hart used an energetic, primitivist 'zine look for these stories, as if they were dashed off quickly (and maybe they actually were). That suits Hutch's disheveled DIY aesthetic perfectly, and Hart clearly sympathizes with Hutch, even if he does come to identify less closely with Hutch by the fourth story here.

If you have sympathy for Hutch's fuck-the-Man attitude, you might like these stories better than I did. If you're substantially to my right politically, you will loathe Hutch with the heat of a thousand fiery suns. So calibrate your interest accordingly.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/4

Howdy! As the time this posts, I will be off at my alma mater for a College Search 101 program with my younger son, but know that I am with you in spirit! (And I nearly always set my posts to go at specific times anyway.)

Like every other Monday, I'm going to list the new books I saw in the past week. I got two books in the mail -- go me! -- and here's what looks interesting about them too early on a Sunday morning (as I write this):

Shroud of Eternity is the new novel from Terry Goodkind; it's the second in the Sword of Truth sidebar/continuation series "Sister of Darkness: The Nicci Chronicles" after this January's Death's Mistress. It's coming in hardcover from Tor on January 8th, 2018 -- is 2018 really that close? where does the time go? -- and features, well, Nicci and her compatriots continuing their peregrinations around this particular incarnation of fantasyland.

If you've never read Goodkind before, and are wondering what kind of fantasy writer he is, let me quote for you the first sentence of this novel:
Rotting human flesh glistened in the sunlight, discolored by the bruised hues of putrefaction.

That kind of fantasy writer. If that's your thing, he's very popular, and you can get in at something like a beginning with Death's Mistress, which presumably will be out in paperback at the same time as this new book. So go to it.

The Nine is the first in a urban fantasy series -- set in a city named Corma, in what may be our world in the near future or some other world in some other time -- by Tracy Townsend, coming from Prometheus as a trade paperback November 14th. A "black market courier" -- is there really that much courier work that you can specialize in that much of a sub-set of it? fascinating! -- loses a magical book to nefarious forces, falls in with several others, and learns said book is A Really Big Deal. As in, written by God big deal, possibly ending the world big deal -- that kind of big deal.

It has quotes from Max Gladstone, Curtis C. Chen, and Sam J. Miller, a really snazzy cover, and, despite my snark, doesn't sound like anyone else's books, which is entirely a good thing.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Quote of the Week

A line I have used, far out of context and far more often than I probably should:

"So, what you're telling me, Percy, is that something you have never seen is slightly less blue than something else you have never seen."
 - Edmund Blackadder, Duke of Edinburgh, "The Queen of Spain's Beard"

I find it can be particularly good in political arguments, or anything that descends into "No True Scotsman" territory.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux

It's not unreasonable that a book that took a year to live and some significant time afterward to write would also take a substantial time to read. So I didn't mind that it took me six weeks to wander through Paul Theroux's late-80s train travelogue of China, Riding the Iron Rooster.

I started this book on a trip of my own -- off to the "mothership" of my company, in darkest Eagan, Minnesota, back in mid-September -- and didn't get much read during that week. It's a longish book for me these days, with four hundred and fifty pages of dense type, and I'm still trying to figure out when and how to read more when I'm only commuting two days a week. (If I save two hours of commuting each way, and only sleep one hour later, surely that should mean I have three more hours in the day, right? Somehow, it doesn't happen that way.)

Theroux spent what seems like close to a year during 1986 and 1987 in China, and he doesn't explain how he managed that: his travel books never talk about the rest of his life, or his family, just the places he's traveling in and the people he meets there. My assumption is that this book actually records a series of shorter trips, of a few weeks or a month at a time, and that he flew in and out to pick up from where he left off sometime later. But that could be wrong: maybe he just settled into a Chinese city for a week or three at a time, working on whatever other book he had going in 1986 (knowing publishing schedules, I'd guess 1989's My Secret History, though 1987's The White Man's Burden is more thematically appropriate), and then had a few days on the train to the next city to gather material for this book. It's probably some combination of that -- I doubt he really stayed in China for 12+ months solid, but he never explains those details in his travel books.

The first chapter, unusually, is about getting to China, but, more characteristically, it's all by rail. Theroux started from London -- "where I happened to be," as he archly puts it on page one -- and joined a package railway tour through the USSR as a way to get to Mongolia and then China itself. The first long chapter is with the tour group, across Europe and Russian Asia, as he dodges questions about what he does for a living and snoops on his (pretty dull) fellow package tourists.

(Theroux, like any self-respecting travel-book writer, disdains mere tourists and thinks of what he does as travel, something higher and better and available only to the purer sort of person who doesn't have to get back to a real job after one or three weeks.)

Then he gets into China itself, which of course is gigantic. I think people, no matter where they live, have skewed views of the large countries of the world, thinking everything else smaller than it is -- the American's view of China is of a place smaller than the US and a lot like his favorite "Chinese" restaurant, and an Indian's view of America is of somewhere nowhere near as expansive and varied his his own country. China is, of course, gigantic, and full of specific places and people -- Tibetan and Han and Mongolian and Manchu and plenty of others -- meaning anything like a correct view will be a kaleidoscope. Theroux's style, writing about a specific time and place, does help to keep that reality in view.

Also, China is long-civilized and most of it has been transformed entirely by human activity over thousands of years. This trip was before more recent engineering marvels like the Three Gorges Dam or the explosive growth of the South Chinese industrial cities, but Theroux regularly comments on how odd it is to travel through a vast countryside that's almost entirely cultivated: fields march in neat tiers up hillsides next to tamed and emptied rivers, and hard-working Chinese farmers are ubiquitous.

Like other Theroux travel books I've read, Riding the Iron Rooster is organized by journeys: each chapter is about a specific trip, on a specific itinerary, at a particular time of year. He may be a bit vague about how he got there and what else he may be doing, but he's very focused on what's going on in each place as he reaches it, and what it's like to be on those crowded, rough railways for each leg. He has Chinese minders some of the time, but he mostly wears them down -- as he presents himself, he's happy to keep riding hard trains across the country, and not trying to maintain a regular life, so his aim to be free to wander about and talk to random locals is fulfilled most of the time.

Any travel book is a snapshot of a moment in time, this one more than most. The China of 1986 was rapidly modernizing, still feeling the shock of the Cultural Revolution and trying to make up for lost time. And there was that mid-80s wonder of what would happen to the "Communist" countries of the world, as varied as they were. Eventually, the Warsaw Block fell, one by one, to their own internal problems, but China, typically, kept on its own path and neither Westernized nor fell behind. (Remember the old post-Soviet joke about glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring)? That the USSR got glasnost without perestroika and fell apart, while wiser China picked perestroika without glasnost and thrived.)

Theroux is a bit grumpy, and definitely prefers the rural to the urban. So this may have been his last, best chance to see a China that was closer to his preferences -- that's a country that has been urbanizing, in fits and starts but solidly, for thousands of years. Typically, he's happiest in his last chapter, about a trip to Lhasa in Tibet -- where he got to drive much of the way, where he was as far from the big cities of China as it's possible to be within the country, where the locals are a conquered people and unhappy with that lot in their Buddhist way, where he finds a "city" the size of a medium-sized town with "medieval" plumbing and the other primitive accouterments he always perks up for.

Riding the Iron Rooster depicts a China that is not quite the same as the one of today -- but many of the people and types Theroux met then are still around in contemporary China, and the past is always the parent of the present. Any travel book is outdated by the day it's published, since those people are no longer in those places doing those things, but the best travel books, like this one, tell us things about people and places that are tied to time but not limited by it.

Read in October

These are the books I read this month: I can already tell (typing this intro on October 7) that it's going to be a slim month. Oh, well.

Kurt Busiek, Len Wein and Kelley Jones, Conan: Book of Thoth (10/3)

Rick Geary, The Story of the Lincoln County War (10/4)

Kyle Baker, The Bakers: Babies and Kittens (10/10)

Peter Bagge and others, Sweatshop (10/12)

Michel Rabagliati, Paul Moves Out (10/24)

Paul Moves Out was the second of Michel Rabagliati's semi-autobiographical graphic novels about "Paul Riforati," who had a life remarkably parallel to his creator's.

I wrote about it when I read it the first time, back in 2008. I was pretty straightforward then, and I don't see any strong reason to add fripperies or gewgaws to that original post, so you can just follow the link if you want to know more.

I guess I can say this, which is new: I owned a copy of this book, lost it in a flood, bought a new one, re-read it, and enjoyed it even more. That could be because it was a second read, when hidden things often become more clear, or just because I'm older now -- either way, I can recommend this book again.

Walt Simonson and Daniel Brereton, Legends of the World's Finest (10/25)

Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster (10/28)

Tom Hart, The Collected Hutch Owen, Volume 1 (10/31)



Hey! I forgot to push the "publish" button on time. But here you go now.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Legends of the World's Finest by Walt Simonson & Daniel Brereton

Note: I didn't plan to read this book and have the review land on Halloween -- that was purely random. But it's nice when things work out so appropriately, isn't it? 

There are books where you wonder why anyone ever thought they were a good idea -- how they could possibly have come into existence. A fully-painted series of comic books in which a sweaty-looking Superman and Batman trade dreams as part of the schemes of an undead Scottish laird to beat a random female demon would fall into that category for a whole lot of people.

But, once you realize that comics not uncommonly come into existence because the then-hot artist had a list of things he really wanted to draw, it starts to make more sense. Legends of the World's Finest, the book in question, has introductions from both writer Walt Simonson and painter Daniel Brereton in which both of them pretend this was a good or at least plausible idea to begin with. (In their defense, it was 1993, when the spandex-dudes industry was teetering on an unsustainable peak of grimacing, variant covers, belt pouches, bad art, and speculator hype. A lot of things looked like good ideas at the time from inside the industry. And Brereton, unlike some artists of that era, was hot because he paints creepy, gorgeous art, so the demon-plot at least was driven by his obvious strengths.)

This Legends is also from long enough ago that it feels more like the wordy comics of the '70s and '80s than the more stripped-down style of the last twenty years -- everyone here yammers on a lot, and the narrative voice gets into the action, too, telling us things we can clearly see in the panels repeatedly. I'm too lazy to look up whether the "real" Superman was officially dead or alive when Legends was published -- it was right in the middle of that foofaraw, when first he was dead, then he was four other people, and then he suddenly wasn't dead and wasn't any of them, either -- but it's from that era of comics, when the Big Two companies were throwing everything they could think of at the wall, with the Image founders doing the same with even less likely things, and nearly everything was sticking.

For a while, at least. The wall wised up before too long, and a hell of a lot of things suddenly stopped sticking very soon after this. And a lot of projects that worked well enough in the inflationary era look silly and ridiculous afterwards.

Again, which brings us back to Legends. It is silly. I won't say that it's actually ridiculous, but it and ridiculous are close enough neighbors to share a snow-blower this winter. It has Batman and Superman act wildly out of character on purpose, but doesn't manage to wring any humor, or much drama, out of that. It manages to feel much longer than its hundred-and-fifty-ish pages. For a presumably out-of-continuity Prestige Format series, it's remarkably mired in the dull continuity of the era. (Superman thinks about his last encounter with Blaze, the female demon! It features the character sensation of never, the who-ever-cared-about-her Silver Banshee!)

There are a lot of big elements here that just don't come off as big. The world is nearly destroyed, yet again, but it's ho-hum. There's way too much talking, none of it in words that are surprising or interesting. And it teaches the great superhero lesson that evil people can never change, so you should never ever help anyone who asks.

Everyone has probably forgotten this even existed. They were pretty much right to do so. But the Brereton art is still quite impressive, especially if you want to see a sweaty, bodybuilder-esque Superman lurching around. That's the most positive thing I can say about it.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/28

Here we go again with the Monday thing. As a possible distraction, I post every week about whatever new books I've gotten, in the hopes other people will want them as well. (This isn't quite as self-centered as it sounds, since those books tend to be sent to me unexpectedly by their publishers.)

This week I have one book to mention: the twentieth "Saga of Reculse" fantasy novel by L.E. Modesitt, Jr., The Mongrel Mage. I've only met Modesitt once or twice in passing, and read one book in this series more years ago than I remember, so I'm not going to pretend to a deep knowledge of the man or his work. But he's been writing smart fantasy for more than twenty years (plus some SF as well), across a number of series, which should be celebrated.

Mongrel Mage is a Tor hardcover, officially going on sale tomorrow in all of the North American places you can buy books imprinted on paper or electrons.

Recluse is a world where there are two distinct kinds of magic -- white Chaos and black Order -- but the main character of this book, Beltar, can use both of them, in ways no one has seen for hundreds of years. And that, of course, makes him a target, as new capabilities and powers always are. I don't know if this volume completes Beltar's stories, but Modesitt has generally let each Recluse book stand as a novel rather than stringing out plots endlessly.

So: interesting fantasy, relatively standing alone though in a world that a reader can explore further, available immediately. Sounds like a winning combination.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Sweatshop by Peter Bagge and others

This is not a limited series. I know: I was surprised, too. But Peter Bagge's afterword, which explains the history of Sweatshop, makes it clear that it was intended to be ongoing, and that he would have been happy to keep it running for a much longer time.

That didn't happen: Sweatshop got a six-issue run from DC in 2003, when that company was in one its periodic throes of trying to broaden its range, which was followed by the inevitable and equally periodic pullback to its core competency of grimacing people in spandex punching each other repeatedly.

Sweatshop is not about spandex, or punching. It does have its share of grimacing, and other extreme facial expressions, because we are talking about Peter Bagge here. But, otherwise, it doesn't look much like a good fit for DC. Our central character is Mel Bowling, a comics creator on the far side of middle age. He's the credited creator of the syndicated strip Freddy Ferret -- though it's really put together by his oddball crew of young, underpaid assistants -- and a lazy, narcissistic golf-playing blowhard.

(The set-up is not unlike some manga about manga-making -- Bagge doesn't mention any inspirations, or Japanese comics at all, in his afterword, but it's at the very least a striking case of parallel development.)

Reading the first issue, I thought it would feature Bagge's art on stories about the whole team and his fellow artists (Stephen Destefano, Bill Wray, Stephanie Gladden, Jim Blanchard, and Johnny Ryan also contribute art to these stories) each picking up from the POV of one of the assistants. That would have been neat, and more formally interesting, but it's not the way the series ended up going: the feint in that direction was apparently a scene-setting one-off for that first issue. Instead, there's mostly a lead story for each issue drawn by Bagge, and then additional stories drawn by one or more of the others, in the style of old humor comics.

The stories are all about that crew in Bowling's studio -- worrying about the "Hammie" awards, planning and going to the big Comic-Con, dealing with a new writer joining the team, and various career and personal issues for all of them. It's not quite as zany and slapstick as Bagge got in the '80s and '90s, but these are broad characters who do crazy things: it's a lot like a sitcom on the page.

Sweatshop is funny, and probably even funnier the more you know about strip comics: I suspect Bagge buried jokes and references I didn't get among the ones I did see and laugh at. Some readers may find the changing art styles distracting, though they all are in the same tradition -- Bagge's rubber-hose arms and googly eyes are probably the most extreme, cartoony style here, with the others giving a (sometimes only very slightly) more restrained version of the same look. What can I say? It's a funny collection of stories about comics and comics people, and a decade has only dated it slightly. (A contemporary version would definitely have at least one issue full of webcomic jokes.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Bakers: Babies and Kittens by Kyle Baker

So, I've been re-reading Kyle Baker's funnybooks -- meaning his comics that are funny, since he's done other kinds as well -- recently, with the first volume of Cartoonist last year, three random books back in January and Cartoonist 2 last month. And he's still got more, meaning I can keep going.

The Bakers: Babies and Kittens was from 2007, and saw Baker go to Image after self-publishing the two Cartoonist books. (Baker has been in another spree of self-publishing the last few years, for whatever reason: my guess would be that he has a deep backlist and no outside publisher can care as much about those books as a self-publisher can.) It contains one long story about his then-young family, with three kids that seem to be under the age of five, told in what I think of as animation-inspired art, usually two wide panels to a page filled with action and energy.

Kids are cute, and kittens are even cuter, but the possibly-fictionalized version of Baker here is allergic to cats, so he puts his foot down and insists the family will not have any. Anyone familiar with American family comedy of the past century will know what happens next: Father is always the butt of the joke, and never gets what he wants. (This all starts, incidentally, with a slapstick scene involving a mouse, which gives an initial impetus to the idea of getting a cat.)

I still think that a lot of Baker's stories from this era really wanted to be animated movies, and would have worked even better in that form. But they're still good as comics, full of vibrant colors and expressive lines, bouncy with comedic energy and verbally fun as well. Maybe I just want to see Babies and Kittens as animation as well: that would have been cool.

Babies and Kittens is technically a sequel, but this is basically a sitcom setup: stories of little kids causing problems are universal, and require nothing other than being a human being who has experienced small children. It's cute, and suitable for nearly all ages -- those younger than two may drool and chew on the book more than you prefer, ditto those over one hundred -- and shows, once again, how funny Baker can be when he has good material and the time to build gorgeous art around it.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/21

Welcome back.

Every week, I list whatever new books I've seen, from publicity, purchase or (some word meaning "library" that begins with a p). Sometimes there are many, sometimes none.

This week, there's one: Steal the Stars, a novel by Nat Cassidy based on the dramatic podcast of the same name written by Mac Rogers. (Which descriptor makes me think about whether "drama" or the medium is usually the noun -- see TV drama but also dramatic presentation. Hmm. Dramatic play? Dramatic opera? Dramatic tweetstorm? On balance, I think that's probably the best way to describe the form.)

Steal the Stars is being published by Tor as a trade paperback on November 7th. Regular Tor, I think, not Tor.com or Tor Labs or the other exotic varieties, though the podcast came from Tor Labs and Gideon Media (in, obviously, a different form than a paperback book).

It's described as "noir science fiction," and seems to be one of the many grandchildren of X-Files: there's a crash-landed alien (gray skin, big head, probably a penchant for anal probing -- the whole shebang) held secretly in a US military base, and two of the people guarding it decide they'd have more opportunity to fuck each other and get rich if they stole the alien and ran off. So they do, apparently.

I am typically not your biggest fan of brand extensions into other media, and I am also old and grumpy, so this sounds like another eruption from the woo-woo conspiracy-theory side of SF. So I will not claim I am going to leap right onto this book and clasp it to my bosom. But it has nice quotes from people I respect, like Paul Cornell and Max Gladstone, so that's probably just me. I bet you will love it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Story of the Lincoln County War by Rick Geary


I almost wish I'd held onto Louis Riel and reviewed that together with Rick Geary's The Story of the Lincoln County War: both are stories in comics about 19th century rebellions, mostly for good reasons against corrupt and nasty rulers, that ended with the destruction of the rebellion and the loss of its cause. Louis Riel was a Canadian, and his story had a racial element that eventually turned that story into one of the important lessons of that nation.

Rick Geary, though, has a more sordid story to tell: one motivated by greed and lust for power on one side, and a slightly purer desire to make a living (or, maybe, to push out the old cabal and supplant it with a new corrupt cabal, in someone's wildest dreams) on the other. The place is Lincoln County, New Mexico, in the late 1870s -- a huge expanse of mostly empty land, with ranchers, farmers, and a few townspeople. The current cabal extends all the way up to the territorial governor, and is anchored by the shopkeeper/merchant to the local fort. (He has an admirably compact supply chain, with hired rustlers stealing local cattle for him to sell as beef to that fort, plus a near-monopoly on most staples and the kind of predatory credit that soon afterward gave rise to the company town.)

On the other side is a new shop-owner, trying to get into the business, and a local lawyer who used to work for the cabal and either was kicked out or smartened up. Eventually, it turns to violence, because it always does.

This is "war" in the local-history sense; at no time is there a pitched battle or real tactics, though an army detachment does get into the fray at one point, with the expected results. The fighters in this "war" are close to the conventional idea of cowboys: well-armed young men in bands riding around a semi-barren landscape and shooting at each other. And, since one side of this "war" does have control of the local government, meaning both the apparatus of the law and the assistance of that army detachment, the outcome is not really in doubt.

Over a long period of time, they say, the arc of humanity does bend towards justice. But any story about individual people doesn't have that luxury of time, and this arc was bent in an entirely different direction. The best thing you can say about this "war" is that it was short and, as far as Geary tell us, didn't claim any civilians. It did spawn a few outlaws, most notably someone Geary here calls by his "real" name, William Bonney. (And so this book is something of a prequel to Geary's The True Death of Billy the Kid from a couple of years ago. Like that book, The Story of the Lincoln County War was funded through Kickstarter. It's not yet on Geary's web store, but that would be the most likely place to find it.)

This is Geary in his usual mature sombre-historical mode, not the madcap Geary of his early career. (Though that wild-hair Geary still does make occasional appearances, once in a while.) As always, he's very good at 19th century faces, at physical spaces from maps to rooms to dusty streets, and at explaining complicated, violent, nasty bits of history to a modern audience. Again, this was a Kickstarter project, presumably because it was considered to have less wide of an appeal than Geary's usual books about historical murders. But this is an interesting bit of unpleasant history -- another tale of capitalism run riot and corrupt, in case we need one more in these fallen days -- told well by a master of comics. If you can find it, it's worth it.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Conan: Book of Thoth by Busiek, Wein & Jones


We really don't need any more origin stories. OK, maybe if it's integrated -- a quick flashback during something else -- it's not so bad. But, please, not a whole story just to show us how the guy we already know got to the place we've seen him. Boooo-ring.

Writers Kurt Busiek and Len Wein (along with artist Kelley Jones) work hard to keep Conan: Book of Thoth out of the Boring Zone, but I'm afraid it's a losing battle.

A) this is an origin story, and (even worse) one of a villain, so it's all cackling laughter and evil triumphing.

Two) this is a Conan story in which Conan can't appear at all, so we just get a couple hundred pages of neo-Howardian pre-historical squalor and woe.

Thoth-Amon is a major Conan villain -- one of the few who doesn't show up and get his head chopped off in the space of a short story, I mean, which is what "major Conan villain" means. And so, round about 2005, he got a comic-book series to explain Who He Is and How He Got That Way. And, well, it turns out he was a nasty street kid -- battered by his father, to make it even more tedious and psychological -- in some random Hyperborian Age city, who did various nasty things for four long issues to end up as High Priest of Set and secret ruler of an entire nation.

MUA-HA-HA-HA!!!!!

Book of Thoth is pretty much all one tone -- slightly detached tsk-tsking at how horrible this guy named variously Thoth, Amon, and Thoth-Amon is, while still being excited at each new bit of nastiness. It's really only for huge Conan fans, and I have no clear idea why it was on my shelf. (My best theory is that it came in one of the care packages of comics I got after my flood in 2011.) And it is one more signpost to show that we really don't need more origin stories.

(By the way, I don't know if Mssrs. Busiek, Wein and Jones knew this at the time, but if you google "Book of Thoth," you get a whole lot of what are technically called "woo-woo" books about Atlanteans and energy beings and a tiny little bit of Egyptiana. Sometimes the obvious title makes your project hard to find.) 


Monday, October 09, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/7

Some weeks I buy a lot of books. Some weeks I get a bunch in the mail. Either one is frankly wonderful.

Some weeks I just turn around, look at everything sitting on my unread shelves (three big bookcases, quite a bit of it double-shelved, down here in my blogger's basement) and try to estimate how long it will take to read through all of it at my current speed.

(And sometimes I look at those shelves and think about the plan to move some things around that's been in the back of my head for at least three months now. Still hasn't happened.)

The point is: I've got plenty of books. And that's not even counting my access to two big library systems. I have way too much to read at any given moment, and the only real problem is the eternal question of which book to read next. (The more books you have, the harder that question is.)

This week there's nothing new to write about. So I get a brief second of thinking I'm keeping ahead of the rising tide. Next week might well be different.....

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Louis Riel by Chester Brown

The great thing about history is that it never stops being history. It might technically get older, but, realistically, a hundred years is the same as a hundred and twenty. Old is old, dead is dead.

So I can read the tenth anniversary edition of a book four years later without feeling any guilt, because the guy it's about has been dead since 1885 anyway. He's not doing anything new in the meantime.

I am, of course talking about Chester Brown's historical graphical comic-book thing Louis Riel, one of the works that most deforms the common usage of the term "graphic novel." (So I'm avoiding using it directly.) Brown himself is one of those quirky Canadian oddballs that comics seems to throw off regularly -- not quite as monomaniacal and misogynistic as Dave Sim, definitely further down the spectrum than seems-to-mostly-just-be-eccentric Seth, and probably about equal with world-class work-avoider Joe Matt -- with his own very defined passions and crankish ideas that mostly stay out of this primarily fact-based book. (Riel did claim to have direct knowledge of the divine, which could easily have been one of the things that attracted Brown to his story -- but that's material that was already there waiting for him. And women are almost entirely absent from this story of 19th century politics and war, whether because of Brown's views or because any contributions they made were quiet at the time and ignored thereafter.)

I can't speak from any personal knowledge of Riel's story, or any previous scholarship. My sense is that Brown followed the generally accepted scholarly consensus at the time, and that his telling is as "true" as any book of history: it's what most experts think happened, in broad outlines, even if some of them probably argue violently with each other about individual details. And that is the old sad story of distant elites of one ethnicity scheming to disenfranchise (or worse) a minority they don't like within a burgeoning territory they control.

In this case, it's the English-descended government of Canada, mostly in the person of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, planning how best to cut up and use a vast section of the mid-continent prairies and deliberately alienating, damaging, and snubbing the locals, particularly the population of mixed French-native background called Metis. (That area eventually became the province of Manitoba, if that helps place it in space and time.)

The Metis people were not happy with this, of course. "No taxation without representation" is only one specific expression of an age-old problem: those people over there, with all the power and most of the guns, are telling us to do things we don't think they should have any say in. The Metis fought back, and Louis Riel is the man who became their leader -- it seems, from Brown's telling, that was because he was right there when the first clash happened on Metis land, and because he spoke English well enough to be a go-between. And he was strong-willed and charismatic to stay in that role. Brown presents him as the leader of his people, and doesn't get into any power struggles that might have happened within the Metis community, even as we suspect they must have happened.

Riel eventually led two different rebellions against the government of Canada. As Brown tells it, he was goaded and guided into doing so by Macdonald and others, who knew they would win militarily and preferred the simplicity of bullets to the messiness of actually doing their political jobs of compromising and allowing all voices to be heard. It's a sad, sordid story, basically a tragedy: Riel was unstable and mentally ill (that supposed direct connection with the divine), which possibly kept him from finding a better solution for his people. Or maybe they were doomed from the beginning, since the other side had the government, the railroad, most of the guns, more money, and their own racism to convince themselves they were firmly in the right.

Brown tells the story well, focusing on Riel's life and actions and using a clean six-panel grid -- he gets out of the way of his story almost entirely. This looks like a Chester Brown story, since his art is distinctive, but it reads like compelling reality, without the surrealistic breaks and self-obsessions of his earlier works. There's a reason this has become a Canadian classic; it tells an important story well. This edition includes an extensive collection of sources and notes, plus a section at the back with sketches, original comics covers and other related stuff. To maximize the scholarly heft, there's an essay by an academic to close the whole thing out. But most readers won't bother with that anyway. The book itself is enough: it tells a story we've seen many times before, but need to be reminded of regularly.