25 May 2008

Little Brother

Little Brother
Cory Doctorow

Whoo! Class is over! I mean, I liked it a lot, but now I can write about things that aren't comics!

So it's been, like, a month, and I return triumphant, having been out of school for a week and a half and back in the workforce for a day total. Not that I started working just today. It's Memorial Day weekend. That'd be silly. No, I started yesterday at my regular summer job at the local bookstore, a glorious Nirvana if ever there was one. Well, at least in that incredibly-materialistic-I-love-books-not-Nirvana-at-all kind of a way.

Anyway, one of the perks of my job is that we've got a whole table full of advanced reading copies of books all stacked up in the back room at the store. They come, they sit around, sometimes they get read. As an employee, I get to take home any of these books that I'd like, a policy that I take liberal--sometimes absurd--advantage of. To start things off, I found a couple of books that looked interesting and wafted them away with me, and one was Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow.

Now, I had a copy of Little Brother already. I downloaded it in PDF from Cory Doctorow's website, because that's the sort of thing he likes. And I suppose I proved part of his point in doing this, because did it stop me wanting a print copy? No! Reading long books on the computer sucks. Trust me, I know this for a fact. I've been known to spend days at a time on Project Gutenberg and come out, more well-read, but with a splitting fucking headache. Man, seriously. You have no idea of the pain. ...well, probably you do. Not relevant. Whatever.

So, I started on the book this morning. Finished it this evening. It's a quick read. Partially that may be because it's a YA book and thus was written more simply than I'm used to, but I wouldn't really buy that as a full excuse. Mainly it took me so little time because I couldn't put it down. Well, ok, I put it down to drive to the movie theatre and watch Prince Caspian, but those were special circumstances. A Narnia movie was available to me. Far be it for me to not indulge myself in a personal childhood obsession.

I'm babbling. It was a great book. It's solid, and scary, and it doesn't talk down to anyone. If Marcus (the narrator) says something weird, he explains himself, and he does it well. The tech was real (or realistic, if not all strictly real), the hacks were definitely real, and the story was real in a way that warmed a diffident dissident like myself to the core. I finished the book and it made me want to poke around online for hacks for my PSP. (Yes, I own a PSP. And a DS. Consumer whore? Maybe so. But mainly I like games.) But seriously, for gods' sake, this kid takes out Homeland Security with an Xbox! That's a glorious feat!

Neil Gaiman says in his wonderful blurb that he wants to get this into the hands of every thirteen-year-old he knows, in the hopes that it'll change the way they think for the better. I agree. Shit, I want to give copies of this book to my cousins. Then when they take over the planet they'll remember me as the person who showed them the way.

Have I not let out the basic plot yet? Well, here. Hacker kid in San Francisco is near the site of a terrorist attack, gets arrested by Homeland Security and interrogated, and then is released into a USA that's like Franz Kafka had a baby with George Orwell's worst nightmare. So he decides to do something about it using only a hacked Xbox and pure, unadulterated rage.

It's super cool. I feel the need to program now. Actually, I think I need to go take a look around, see if anyone's programmed a Clockwork Pirates game yet.

Read this book. Give it to your kid sister and every single one of her friends. If they don't want to buy it and you don't want to lend it to them, get them to Cory Doctorow's website and have them download a copy. If they don't have Internet access and can't have the book, read it to them, over the phone if necessary. Spread it like a plague. Spread it like an Internet meme.

This book kicks ass.

22 April 2008

Things You Might Enjoy, If You Enjoy This Sort Of Thing: Episode Nine

Doom Patrol Volume One: Crawling Out of the Wreckage
Grant Morrison

This is an addendum to the con edition of Four-Color World, because I picked up the first volume of Doom Patrol there. I've been looking for it for a while, but previously I've only ever managed to find volumes two through four, never one.

Doom Patrol is a comic about a group of superhumans who are not superheroes. They've got superpowers, but you can't look up to them. They're weird and fucked-up and depressed. One of them is a human brain in a robot body. One of them has sixty-four distinct personalities, each with its own superpower. They're pretty bizarre. And they fight the enemies too freaky for the normal heroes to take care of.

They got a few different comics, and the one this volume is from had been running for a while when Grant Morrison got hold of it. Before he started writing it, however, he persuaded the previous author to kill off a number of characters, so that he could build the cast himself. Crazy Jane, the one with multiple personalities, is one of his creations.

In short: this comic is intensely disturbing. The nature of reality is frequently fluid, and several of the monsters are based on things from that horrifyingly delightful children's book, Struwwelpeter. I read it in the van on the way back to Maine, and it gave me the wiggins, enough that I didn't want to let my feet hang off the seat into the place where it was dark.

At the same time, though, it was really cool. The writing was fantastic, of course, the art was fairly cool, and the creepiness added. The characters were also amazing--they were well-developed and interesting. Crazy Jane's multiple personalities added depth without being an irritating stereotype. Rebis, Negative-Man, was intensely bizarre in a way that was genuinely unnerving.

Anyway, it's really worth reading. Creepy, but cool. I'd recommend it.

Four-Color World: The (Slightly Belated) Con Edition

Hello, everybody! Today, your lovely Miss Becca is reporting to you on New York Comic Con.

My classmates and professor and I drove to New York City on Friday. Because we're in central Maine, we started out at three in the morning. The drive was long and cramped and mildly horrible, but when we got there it was cool.

Highlights of the con:
  • On Friday evening I went to Neil Gaiman's reading. He was very funny and charming, and he read chapter three of The Graveyard Book, which was awesome. Afterward I got to see the Christmas special of the latest season of Doctor Who. It was dreadful. But in a fun way.
  • On Saturday there was shopping, and my boyfriend and I went to the "Spotlight on Grant Morrison" presentation. I got to ask him how he felt about being a character in the DC Universe. He's pretty cool with it.
  • Later, there had been plans to go see the previews for Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Spirit. However, they were ditched in favor of waiting in line for Grant Morrison's signing. He signed my copy of Arkham Asylum and gave me a hug. It was the pinnacle of my con experience. ^_^
  • Met many exciting people, including Jon Rosenberg, the author of Goats. It is one of my favorite webcomics. I bought the first volume and he signed it.
  • Sunday had a bit more shopping, and the Final Crisis panel. I didn't pay too much attention, because I don't keep up with current comics, but it was fun listening to Grant Morrison's lovely accent.
All in all, a very good trip. I came back with lots of swag. Very fun.

16 April 2008

Rorschach the Optimist

Alan Moore

To the winner goes the SPOILERS

Whoo! This is the week I've been looking forward too. My dad got me a copy of Watchmen when I was in high school, and I've loved it ever since.

Anyway, with this latest reread I noticed something sort of odd. Rorschach, probably the scariest character in the entire comic, is actually kind of an optimist. But not happy. Just an optimist. I mean, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a less cheery comic book character. But he really believes in what he's doing, and he believes it in a good way.

Witness this. In the second issue of Watchmen (I have to go by issue--my trade has no other page numbers), Rorschach goes to visit the Comedian's grave. He is busy pondering the case of the Comedian's murder, and provides us with this really amazing quote:

"So many questions. Never mind. Answers soon. Nothing is insoluble. Nothing is hopeless. Not while there's life."

Think about that. Rorschach is sketchy and violent and has a lot of prejudices. He does not get along well with others and never smiles. But he's the one who believes in the human race. Dan Dreiberg can't decide what he wants, let alone figure out what he wants for other people. Laurie Juspeczyk always hated the hero business. Ozymandias can only help people by doing things for them, and Dr. Manhattan doesn't care.

But Rorschach...he thinks things are going to work out. He thinks that things are probably going to work out all right. Which is kind of weird, given how much he dislikes most people.

I think I like Rorschach a lot more now.

13 April 2008

Things You Might Enjoy, If You Enjoy This Sort Of Thing: Episode Eight

The Book of Ballads
Charles Vess and various others

Hey, look! It's not a webcomic!

Not only is The Book of Ballads not a webcomic, it's also nothing like really any of the comics I've reviewed here so far. It doesn't have a continuing story, and nothing in it connects to any other comics. It's a fully standalone book of short pieces. I figured it'd fit into this week's set of post because all of the stories in it are, as you may have guessed from the title, taken from ballads.

Charles Vess is one of my favorite comic book artists. You may have heard of him, particularly if you're a fan of Neil Gaiman. He did the Fairyland section of the original Book of Magic and was the other half of Stardust--not the recent movie, but the illustrated novel it's based on. He does extraordinary work, and The Book of Ballads is one of his babies.

Basically, what Vess did was get a bunch of awesome comics writers to do scripts based on various traditional English ballads, and then he illustrated them. The first one, "The False Knight on the Road," is actually by Neil Gaiman. Other ballads used are "Alison Gross," "Barbara Allen," and "King Henry," among others.

They're all well-written stories, and of course the art is beautiful, but the little thing that makes this book even more awesome is the appendix. At the end of the book, Vess has included a list of all the ballads used, with information about where you can find various recordings of them. For example, Steeleye Span, one of my favorite music groups, recorded an amazing version of "Alison Gross," and that is listed.

It seemed right to include this review in this week's posts because of the whole icon theme. A ballad is not necessarily iconic, but ballads and their themes are in the same family as icons. They're songs because it's easy to remember songs, and they tell stories that people felt, for one reason or another, should be remembered. Ballads are part of the collective memory of the English and Celtic cultures.

If you'd like to dispute the important of ballads, I will tell you do one thing. Find the old Loony Toons episodes where they did Robin Hood stories. One of them has Porky Pig in it as Friar Tuck, and what is he doing when we first see him? He's singing "Barbara Allen," probably one of the most famous English ballads and also one of the ones used in this book.

This is a cool book. You should read it. It may not be like anything you're used to, but it's interesting, and makes for good bite-sized bits of reading.

Other Iconic Characters

The group presentations I mentioned in the last post were focused around five fairly iconic superhero characters. My group was of course Captain America. The others were Batman, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, and Superman. Actually we haven't gotten to those last two yet in class; the presentations run a bit long.

Anyway, that's a good selection of characters for basic icon status. However, I think there are a lot more to be considered. They're not necessarily quite as much in the common consciousness, but they still represent interesting and long-lasting things. So this post will be a brief list of other people who seem important in that way.

Number one: The Phantom Stranger. I've got a bit of a weakness for him, because he's weird and interesting, but he's also got something going for him on the iconic level. He's that guy. You know, that guy. The one who shows up and helps you out and then is just sort of...gone. He's like the Doctor, and look how popular the Doctor is. He's Obi-Wan Kenobi. It's awesome.

Number two: Dr. Strange. Another weakness. Well, honestly, I've got a weakness for any magic-based superhero. But Dr. Strange fits well into that iconic mold because he's not just a magic-user. He's the Sorcerer Supreme. He's the kind of guy people might seek out for instruction. Big Top Wizard Guy is an important iconic role.

Number three: Beast. Besides being my favorite X-Men character, he's got a very important iconic role to play. Specifically, he's the Smart Freak. You know the Smart Freak. Lots of things have them. A lot of them, though, aren't as freaky as they're made out to be. For example, Willow, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, or Smallville's Chloe. Those two are supposedly freaks at their high schools, but they don't look it. They're cute and personable. Beast's appearance can be genuinely alarming, and he's a bloody genius.

Number four: Swamp Thing. He's like Captain America. But for the planet. Also he's got that immortal elemental spirit thing going for him.

I'm Not Even A Cap Fan And I Think He's Cool

This week in class we didn't discuss specific comics. Instead we talked about icons and iconic characters. This included breaking up into groups and doing presentations on certain iconic comics figure, and my group got Captain America.

Witness the title of this post. I think Captain America is neat. I was vaguely sad when he died. And I've never even read any comics with him in them. I mean, he made a couple of one-panel appearances in other things I've read, but nothing big.

We've already done our presentation, of course, but I thought I'd provide a little of it to you, my adoring public. We had to answer four questions:
  • What does this character stand for?
  • What other icons are associated with this character?
  • Why has this character endured?
  • How do you think this character will change in the future?
My favorite question was number three. The simple answer: Captain America has endured because he's Captain America. It may sound silly, but think about it. Captain America is sort of like a comic-book version of George Washington. George Washington is an icon because he symbolizes America; so is Cap.

Captain America can always be used to fight whatever real-life bad guy people in this country are scared of. Scared of Nazis? He's fought them. Communists? Punched them into next week. Terrorists? He'll battle them for you. The US government? Well, hey, Civil War. He's fought them too. And he's always fighting racists.

He may not be on as many t-shirts as Superman or have as many separate comics as the X-Men, but Captain America is still Captain America. He's our guy. Not the government's guy--the people's. And that's all the people, too.

06 April 2008

Things You Might Enjoy, If You Enjoy This Sort Of Thing: Episode Seven

John Allison

This week we have yet another webcomic review. This wasn't originally meant to be primarily a webcomics review series, but I read a lot of them, and love most of the ones I read. So today it's Scary-Go-Round, which is one of my very favorites.

Scary-Go-Round is awesome because it is a lot of things at once. It's sort of an extended exercise in magical realism, with a dash of comedy of manners and a lot of people who have funny ways of talking. It's another one of those comics that you can't just drop into; it's been running for a few years and has a lot of back story, but the archives are totally worth it. Besides all the plot, you can watch John Allison's art style improve and morph and do things that are really weird. It's super cool.

The first couple of storylines notwithstanding, Scary-Go-Round mostly follows the adventures of Shelley Winters and a number of other complicated characters. For example, the current storyline is about The Boy, whose name was recently revealed to be Eustace. He is spending some time in France on student exchange, and is living with his friend Elodie, who hasn't quite gotten the hang of pronouncing his name and as a consequence refers to him as "Useless." The traditional French Easter bell, the one that brings the eggs, has just been replaced with a super-sketchy pink bunny with long sharp teeth. Havoc is ensuing.

Scary-Go-Round is a place where anything can happen. It is a place where the moon watches people getting undressed and sometimes there are demons. It is a place where occasionally the headmaster of the local school is a creepy Victorian warlock-type named Crowley. It is a place where you can have friends that are bats, although Ryan's friend Friend Bat died a while ago and was replaced with Comrade Bat. It is a place where people use very few contractions.

It's kind of hard to describe, actually. Mainly it's just bafflingly weird in a way that is at the same time really awesome. And of course, I live for things that are bafflingly weird. They make me do dances in my heart.

Academic Pretension

Fun Home
Alison Bechdel

I was mildly puzzled in class on Monday to hear one of my classmates accuse Alison Bechdel of academic pretension in the writing of Fun Home. This wasn't because she used long, complicated sentences or went off on lengthy discussions of obscure topics for no reason or anything else that I would think of as pretentious. It was because Fun Home was filled with literary references, including references to what some might refer to as "great" works of literature. James Joyce's Ulysses, for example, or the novels of Marcel Proust, or the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus.

Now, this accusation puzzles me because it implies something unpleasant and unfair and unnecessarily restrictive to authors. Maybe the average person off the street, picking up a copy of Fun Home and flipping through it, won't get every single literary reference. But hey, that's ok. Bechdel explains many of them, and what a reader doesn't get, he or she can look up. It shouldn't really be an imposition to ask someone to hop on the computer and search Wikipedia or something. Also, though, saying that making literary references is pretentious places a restriction on authors that they shouldn't have.

True, some people use fancy language and refer to famous books because they want to look smarter. But reading Fun Home, it seemed to me like Alison Bechdel made these references because literature was what interested her. Referencing something because you enjoy and because you feel it's a good comparison is not the same as referencing something so that you can look down on people who don't understand you.

From the depictions of some of the more irritating professors and students at her college, in fact, Bechdel seems to despise that kind of behaviour herself. It's rude to look down on people because they know less than you. If someone doesn't understand something, one should explain it, not be snooty. Snootiness just makes people less inclined to want to learn things.

Anyway, I was also puzzled because making literary references seemed entirely appropriate in the context of the story. Literature was obviously important to Bechdel's father, and it's something you get to see them connecting over throughout the course of the story. Given that this is, indeed, a story about Bechdel's father, it's only right to pepper it with the things he liked best.

The Uses Of Autobiography

Fun Home
Alison Bechdel

I really liked Fun Home. It's a little depressing, but then, what that we read in this class isn't? It was also one of my boyfriend's textbooks for his American Autobiography course last semester, and autobiography came up in class, so that seems like something to talk about.

We came up with a few reasons in class for why something relatively unknown would write an autobiography. To give other people something to relate to, maybe. Because you've got a story you think people should know. Maybe, in the case of Alison Bechdel herself, to provide another book which could be added to a "self-discovery reading" stack like she shows us in Fun Home.

Honestly, though, I think the main reason for any autobiography is the straght Occam's-razor one. People like to talk about themselves. Everyone is, at all times, composing a little autobiography in the back of his or her head. Seriously. That's what your memory is; that's part of what it's for. Not everyone necessarily wants to deal with their little auto-autobiography, but there it is. The main difference between that and a written autobiography is that some people feel like letting everyone in on the secret.

Also, I think people write autobiographies as a personal aid to memory. Alison Bechdel, for example, describes Fun Home as a "memoir of her father." Fun Home seems like primarily an autobiography, but I'm certainly also willing to believe that it's exactly what she says it is. At one point in the book she discusses how uncertain she became, for a while, about the events in her life, to the point of writing "I think" after every statement in her diary. An autobiography is a way to validate your memory: it's easier to prove to yourself that you know what you know when you've got it in solid written form. And not only do you have a solid copy of your memories, you get to make them last even longer by giving them to other people. As long as someone lives who has a copy of your book, people will still know that what happened in your life happened.

I forget where I read this first, but there's...well, I think it'd probably be called a philosophical concept, that says that no one is truly dead unless everyone who remembers them is also dead. Autobiographies keep people alive. So that's also what Fun Home is. Until a time comes when there's nobody alive who's read it, Bruce Bechdel will still be alive.

Isn't that cool?

30 March 2008

Yet Again, Art

Pride of Baghdad
Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon

I like to talk about art in comics. Art is cool. Art makes me happy, and, just as in the writing, excellence or the lack thereof can make or break a comic. I mean, I can still read a well-written comic with terrible art, just as I can read a terribly-written comic with beautiful art. But it will make me a sad, solemn creature. It's not nearly as much fun.

Not that Pride of Baghdad is really fun, but it's certainly well-written and beautifully illustrated. The animals are well-drawn without being Disneyish, because I don't think anything could kill the mood of this quite like a little glimpse of Simba. Simba's cute and everything, but Ali looks a lot more like an actual lion.

Care was obviously taken to draw animals that actually looked like they would in real life, and I appreciate that. Like I said, no Disney. The antelope looks like a real antelope, the monkeys look like real monkeys, and that bear is fucking terrifying. I don't know how much of an animal guy Niko Henrichon is, but at least he cares about getting his illustrations to look right.

Besides the accuracy of the animals, I was very impressed by the coloring. Reading Pride of Baghdad is sort of like swimming in paint; everything is intense, very heavily saturated. The zoo is yellow. Safa's flashback is blue and red. The outside, in the wilderness, is green, and the city is golden. And then in the palace it's the same blue-black as Safa's flashback, but with a yellowish-green tint. It's got the same atmosphere of terror. It's very cool flipping through and seeing how much care was put into coloring things properly.

My one problem was that sometimes things were too detailed. Getting the lines on a lines mane right is one thing, but when the zoo is bombed and the giraffe's head blows up I didn't really need to see individual vertebrae. That was just...gross.

It's worth a look from an artist's perspective. I certainly couldn't do it, but I'd like to meet someone who could. That would be awesome.

Abrupt Endings

Pride of Baghdad
Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon

LOL spoilers

Some people in class have complained about the ending of Pride of Baghdad. It's really abrupt, and a lot of people didn't like that--they wanted more after the lions were shot, or more about their lives before the zoo bombing.

I think that might've been interesting, but I have to say that I like the ending as is. It's startling and freaky and moderately heart-wrenching, but I think that was the point. It's a comic about war. Note the phrasing--it's not a "war comic." I've always thought of those as being more about heroic soldiers and adventures. Pride of Baghdad is a comic about war, about what it is and what is does and how people are affected. And it's important to note that, like the ending of this book, war itself is frequently startling and freaky and heart-wrenching.

If there was more of the story, it feels like it would take away from the impact of the ending. More on the beginning wouldn't really be interesting. Yeah, it's about lions, but zoo lions lead fairly boring lives. Not so much goes on with an animal who lives at a zoo. More after the end, on the other hand, would risk A.I. syndrome. You know what that is. It's that thing that some books and movies and television shows do when they have a perfect ending and then continue to drag on for another fifteen minutes or three seasons or whatever.

Pride of Baghdad is a good example of Thomas Hobbes' comment on life during wartime: "No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (Leviathan Pt. 1, Ch. 13). It may not be a comic about humanity, but that's pretty much what's going on here. An abrupt ending is appropriate to that. It's upsetting, and that's the point.

Dearth of Words

Pride of Baghdad
Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon

Again I find that I have trouble of thinking of what to say about this book. Not the same kind of trouble as American Born Chinese, of course. That was a trouble of being entirely satisfied, to the point where I couldn't find a criticism to make. With Pride of Baghdad it's more that there's a lot to say and I have trouble deciding what would be most interesting and deserving of discussion.

I suppose that yet again the best place to start would be with what we talked about in class. We did talk about a lot; there are a few decent jumping-off points. Education is always a good one, but as I'm not a teacher and don't intend to be one, I think I'd like to talk about this from the perspective of a librarian. I do work at a library, and I plan to be a professional librarian, so it's not such a bad place to start.

The subject of librarians first came up in class as a hypothetical situation. What if a librarian wishes to expand her library's graphic novel collection and comes across a catalogue listing for Pride of Baghdad? It's well-reviewed and reasonably topical--or, if this is in a couple of decades, not topical but historical. And hey, it's about a family of lions. Is this for children? If it's ordered for children, then what's the librarian going to do when it comes and she takes a quick flip through?

Well, first, I'd hope that a responsible librarian wouldn't immediately categorize a graphic novel as children's fare. That's irresponsible, and...well...stupid. It's a terrible idea to think that just because two things use the same medium, they have similar content. The Lord of the Rings is not Lord of the Flies, Memento is not The Court Jester, and Pride of Baghdad is certainly not a Superman comic.

Secondly, talking animals. That shouldn't automatically fall into the category of children's books either. It's a little harder to convince people of, given the overwhelming avalanche of animal books for children, but the animal allegory is still a fine tradition. Animal Farm, for example, came up in class, and the Nun's Priest's Tale in The Canterbury Tales is all about animals. And then there are the modern not-necessarily-for-children animal comics, like the ones that got talked about in my boyfriend's blog, This is NOT a tie-in. Or, hell. Fritz the Cat.

Still, descriptions can be vague. If one wanted to be brief, one could describe Pride of Baghdad as simply a book about "a family of lions in wartime Iraq," and, as my favorite Buffy quote puts it, a vague disclaimer is nobody's friend. Although I'd hope it wouldn't be listed in any sort of catalogue of children's books.

Anyway, speaking from my own perspective as a librarian, I'd certainly have this in any library I may someday get to run. It's a great story. But if someone tried to order it for the children's section I would scold them for narrow-mindedness. I'd let a kid check it out, but I'd probably want some sort of parental permission, or at least a written recommendation from a teacher.

It's a great book. But it's not for kids.

24 March 2008

Things You Might Enjoy, If You Enjoy This Sort Of Thing--Episode Six

Girl Genius
Phil and Kaja Foglio

Quick hit here. Another webcomic.

It is steampunk fantasy with mad scientists. Ultimate sexy.

Miss Becca out.

23 March 2008

Three Dimensions

The Complete Bone
Jeff Smith

I saw some screenshots from intended Bone video games on Jeff Smith's website the other day, and I have to say, I'm disturbed. They don't change the art style radically, but they do put the characters in 3-d. It's creepy.

I don't quite know why it bothers me so much in this situation. Normally I like fancitive three-dimensional computer animation. I think it's cool. Especially if it's a Pixar movie. Bone in three dimensions, however, bugs me to no end.

I think it's partially that I find charm in the flatness of the art style of the comics. Everything is beautifully detailed. Even the Bones are detailed; they're just generally minimal. The backgrounds are gorgeous and intense. The people look like people. I think the art would convert well to simple two-dimensional animation. It doesn't need the added "realism" of three-dimensional computer animation. That just makes it look silly.

Also, Jeff Smith does a lot with facial expressions. His people have lots of emotions, and their faces show them well. Eyes widen. Jaws drop. It's almost like Looney Toons. That looks good when it's flat.

...also the animation just isn't very good. -_-

Thorn The Archetype

The Complete Bone
Jeff Smith


So on Wednesday we had what may be one of my favorite class discussions so far. We talked about literary and artistic archetypes, connecting them to Bone and the characters therein. I think, given this, that it'd be a good time to talk about Thorn.

I like Thorn because she gets to be three archetypes at once. At first she's a good maiden type, almost but not quite a damsel in distress. She gets in trouble, and then people save her. She's also an exotic foreign girl--not so much to the reader, necessarily, but certainly to Fone Bone and his brothers. Then, once we find out her background and she gets her sword, she gets to be a warrior princess.

I also like Thorn because of the all-ages aspect of Bone I was talking about last post. She's pretty and intriguing without being overly sexual. The chronology of the story suggests that she's about twenty, but she looks like a normal person instead of some blonde bombshell. And she's a good example.

Not that I think all kids should be like Thorn, but she's worth looking at as some sort of role model. She's smart, and generally reasonable, and good to people. Sometimes she gets really angry, but generally not without good reason. Sometimes she goes tearing off when it's not a good idea, but it's not like she's just being wild and rebellious. She does get unreasonable occasionally, but for the most part she's a good person.

So she also gets to be a fourth archetype, one that's less traditional: she is the awesome young lady. That's the one who's not a wilting flower damsel, not necessarily exotic and sexy, and not necessarily an ass-kicking type. She's just a girl who knows where her head's at. She's like an older version of Neil Gaiman's character Coraline. And that's really cool.

22 March 2008

Magic Bone

The Complete Bone
Jeff Smith

This week's reading was the immense tome that is Jeff Smith's glorious work of fiction, The Complete Bone. Much of the discussion had to do with the subject of "all-ages" comics--what makes them so, and things of that ilk. Several reasons were given, at least for Bone. No sex. Expressive character art. Lots of humor.

What I think is important, though, is the immensity of the story. It reads quickly, because of all the pictures, but it's still nine volumes long. It's a genuine epic fantasy, and it's for sort of for children, which is something I think we need more of. There are children's series, including long-running monthlies like Animorphs, but you can't buy most of those in one huge volume. That is restricted to books for grown-ups.

comes in one huge volume, and yet I think I could provoke a child to read all of it. They're putting out color versions targeted just at kids, but I don't even think I'd need that. The art is cool without color, and honestly the coloring is a little weird. It has action and adventure and comedy and fighting and stupid, stupid rat creatures, and also romance that doesn't involve any kissing, which is a big selling point for children.

It is awesome for children in the same way that opera can be awesome for children; kids like stuff that's a little bit dark and scary and gross. Kingdok could probably give a kid nightmares, but then he gets defeated, and Briar is creepy but silly and weird at the same time. It's a story that's big and scary and intense, but then the good guys win. And it's good for teaching concepts, I think--at least, for teaching kids why it's good to be like Fone Bone and not at all like Phoney. It's like The Neverending Story, which is a beautiful epic story that children should read so that they can learn the value of retaining their imaginations and remembering who they are.

Someday I'm going to make my children read Bone. Children should read more. Bone is good for that.

16 March 2008

Things You Might Enjoy, If You Enjoy This Sort Of Thing--Episode Five

Otter Soldiers
Elina Hopeasaari

Following on my review of last week, this is another webcomic for your perusal. Like Grayling, it's not the typical newspaper-strip format--this, again, is closer to full pages of trade paperbacks getting put up online.

It's called Otter Soldiers. It's Finnish.

Before you ask, yes. It's available in English. The author actually translates it herself; the website has two sections, one in Finnish and one in English. I've linked to the English one, of course. Story premise is as follows (not a quote):

We are in Finland. Santa Claus is dead. His elves have gone crazy and are trying to improve the world by causing "bad" children to disappear. An eleven-year-old girl's friend disappears, and she hooks up with an angry, depressed woman and some fairies to save the world.

No, I'm not making that up.

It's a fairly weird comic in the first place, as you can see, made even weirder by the fact that the author's English translation occasionally uses some really bizarre grammar. I want to learn Finnish now, just to see where she's getting these grammatical constructions from. The two main characters--the girl and the grouchy woman--are named Outi Janis and Reiska Lilavati. Outi at least is cool; Reiska's self-loathing worries me.

Despite the weirdness, it's a fascinating story. It draws heavily on Finnish folklore--in fact, the author provides a page explaining the some of the things in the comic for people who are not of Finnish descent. Finnish folklore is why the elves in this comic are freaky little murderbeasts instead of rosy-cheeked helpers or ethereal othertypes.

The art is interesting. Hopeasaari is actually a really good artist, but I will warn you that she does not draw pretty. The story of Otter Soldiers is creepy and weird, and the art for it is just as creepy and weird. But sometimes it is also beautiful.

The weird English takes some getting used to, and the story might scare you. If anything, you'll never look at raisins in the same way again. Despite the freakiness, though, there's a lot of humor, so while it certainly isn't continuously funny, there are things to laugh at. Like Grayling, this is a comic that should be read from the beginning, and it updates irregularly. However, it's still more regular than Grayling--I've found that there will normally be at least one new page a week, often more. So it might be a little bizarre, but it's totally worth reading, and the story isn't too hard to follow, especially given the pleasant frequentness of updates.

Give it a shot. If you get freaked out, it's probably my fault. But if you like it, that's my fault too.

Read This Book

American Born Chinese
Gene Luen Yang

Right. So I just posted about how little I felt I could really say about ABC. Well, then, I am forsworn. Or something. Anyway, here's something I can say.

This is why you should read American Born Chinese, and why it should be taught in schools:
  • First off, it's just a good story. It's well-written and interesting, and in a student context would be an excellent example of "this is one person's writing style which works."
  • It uses an unorthodox (for Western culture) story structure which is interesting to the casual reader and would lead very well in a classroom setting into a discussion of plot structure and how it can vary creatively.
  • It's a good, easy-to-read example of a comic as literature. I think it'd be an excellent way to introduce graphic novels as a literary form--not too complicated or weird, but still an interesting story told in such a manner that the combination of art and words is really necessary.
  • It's got a good message. I always like a be-yourself story that isn't heavy handed.
  • As I said in my earlier post, it'd be a great intro to a study of Eastern myths and legends.
  • It's a good set-up for, school-wise, an in-class discussion of racism and the implications of such.
So there. Six reasons why American Born Chinese is something worth reading. I think I'm going to print up a sheet of these now and start mailing it to schools around the country.

A Baffling Lack Of Commentary

American Born Chinese
Gene Luen Yang

I'm surprised to find that, having said what I have to say about education, I can't really think of much else to talk about for ABC, and honestly, I feel a little guilty. It's a wonderful book.

However, it's hard to discuss something in which the symbolism is so clearly explained. There are three plotlines, they all have the same moral, and they get tied up into a neat little bundle by the Monkey King at the end. That's oversimplified, I know. But still, it doesn't leave much room for commentary.

We spent the past week in class talking about this, so I know I've got things to say. But a lot of what we talked about involved things like racism in the book and Jin's own self-perception problems, and I don't think I could do those justice here without other people to talk with, bringing up their opinions and their interpretations. Besides that, I'm not terribly sure what I'd say. My opinions are not concrete. They're not even liquid.

The best way to discuss this, I think, is to tell anyone who might be out there that hey, they should read American Born Chinese. It's really good, and it'll give you things to think about, even if you can't articulate them.

15 March 2008

Monkey Kings

American Born Chinese
Gene Luen Yang

I'm not an education major. I like teaching, and I'm fairly fond of children, but if I'm going to teach, I'd rather it was at the college level. Primarily this is due to the restrictions that tend to come up when choosing books for a literature course; the books I like and think are worth teaching are frequently frightening, violent, sometimes sexual, and generally considered inappropriate for children.

However, I do have some ideas about what I think kids should be learning. Some of this I hope to rectify myself via the production of awesome young adult fiction; it's something I enjoy doing, and it's a way of reaching lots of children that means I don't have to talk to lots of them all at the same time. Other things, though, I will simply tender as suggestions.

In class this week, we discussed American Born Chinese, a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang. It's considered young adult fiction, and the subject of how one might use it as a teaching aid in, say, middle or high school, came up once or twice. Mainly the consensus was that it wouldn't be great for elementary schoolers, as it contains a lot of stuff about racism--including a deliberate racist caricature, used to make a point--that might be difficult to explain to a class of eight-year-olds and even harder to explain to their parents.

However, despite the difficult subjects it covers, I don't think ABC should be completely eliminated as a possibility for elementary schools. Throughout the book there are three plot threads, and one would be excellent for elementary school students. It is the story of the Monkey King, an important figure in Chinese mythology, and I think it'd be a fantastic way to introduce children to the mythology of other cultures.

Here's the thing: kids get to hear a lot of Western mythology. There are many child-friendly books of Greek myths; there are King Arthur stories and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm Brothers. There are even some cool books of Norse mythology, and if you stray a bit from Europe there are loads of things about Egypt.

The further east you go, though, the harder it is to find a lot of information geared toward children about the mythologies of the cultures you're encountering. I think, for example, that it'd be fantastic if there were more sources for traditional Middle Eastern stories than, say, the intensely Westernized Disney Aladdin. Or more sources for the legends and history of China than the cool but not terribly representative Mulan. Don't get me wrong; I love me some Disney, and these are some of my favorites. But it's fairly slim pickings. I work in a bookstore that actually has a bookshelf for children's mythology, and the lack of variety there makes me rather sad.

Yang's story of the Monkey King has beautiful art, and the reading level isn't anything prohibitively difficult for, say, a third-grader. Even without the backup of the other two storylines, it's still got a good be-yourself message and enough information to lead into a decent discussion of racism if the teacher wanted to do something like that. But what's most important is that this is the Monkey King. He's a big guy in Chinese mythology, and reading the Monkey King portions of ABC would be a good start to a small unit on Eastern mythology. One would start with China, of course, but it's not hard to go from there. There are connections to Hanuman, the Hindu King of the Monkeys, which leads naturally to a discussion of Hindu mythology. The Monkey King is pretty popular in the Japanese media, so that leads into the legends of Japan. The possibilities are pretty much endless.

I'm a big fan of cultural diversity in education, and I think the best way to get started early is through mythology. It was one of my big focuses when I was little; admittedly I did focus on the Greeks, but I've expanded since then. It's exciting for kids. There's action, adventure, occasional romances, rude jokes, introduction to other cultures--what's not to like?

I don't know if I'll ever get to apply this personally. But it's something to consider.

08 March 2008

Things You Might Enjoy, If You Enjoy This Sort Of Thing--Episode Four


It occurred to me this morning that I've done three reviews already and haven't once talked about webcomics. It's sort of a different medium from print comics, but not so far removed that I shouldn't be able to talk about it. I read a lot of webcomics, too, so it's probably a good idea to review one or two.

I only recently started reading Grayling again. I read it a few years ago, but due to the irregular update schedule I eventually fell out of the habit of checking the website. Because it had been a couple of years, of course I had to start from the beginning and read all the way through the archives until I reached the present day.

This isn't just because I wanted a refresher, and it's something I'll warn you about now. Grayling isn't a comic you can just pick up and start reading at the present day. Reading through the archives is required, because the story is deep and complicated and spans a few thousand years. But I can give you a quick explanation, so you'll know what you're getting into.

Briefly, Grayling follows the lives, trials, and tribulations of the elementals of the world of Faidia, including their interactions with certain mortals and their attempts to save the world. It focuses primarily on Moranerial, or Fern, the elemental of fire, Callanerial, the elemental of death, and Morse, a human girl whose life these elementals basically destroy.

Before you ask, yes. It gets a bit depressing.

That is, I must emphasize, only the briefest of summaries. It's not nearly enough to go on if you want to start reading the comic; like I said, you really have to read the archives, and it's worth it. If you start at the beginning, for one, you get to see the art slowly improve and become more and more strange and individual, as well as getting to experience all the glorious character growth in full surround angst. It's bizarre and original, and the characters are for the most part very likable--even Lemanerial, and he's kind of a jackass. Also, the author includes on the site a full cast list, as well as several essays on various aspects of Faidian life, culture, and ecology.

The art is extraordinary. Most of the comic is done in a style that's sort of half-anime, half abstract art. The lettering is mostly done by computer, though, which makes it easier to read, and Arborwin uses gorgeous, intense colors. You really need to read this comic.

However, I will provide one last warning, just to make sure nobody gets really alarmed. Arborwin herself has put this warning at the beginning of the archives. Grayling, for those of you who might be bothered by this, is filled with gay. Lots of gay. A number of the main characters are...well, elementals don't really go by human sexuality, but there are a lot of same-sex relationships. It doesn't bother me, but if that's something that'll bug you, don't read this comic.

Other than that, though, it's totally worth it. It's a beautiful story.

L Is Denny Colt's Illegitimate Grandson

Death Note Volume 1
Tsugumi Ohba

We were meant to talk about The Spirit and Death Note in class this Wednesday. Unfortunately we had our fourth Wednesday snow day, thus cutting that out. But I figured I'd have something to say about it here. This can serve as my second post of the day about a specific Death Note character.

So far, having only read volume one of Death Note, I haven't gotten to see much of L the detective. I've heard a few spoilers and seen an episode of the anime, but I still don't know too much. Guessing about his identity is as much of a hobby in the actual comic as it is in the real world, too, so I think I can put in my two cents. I believe that L the detective is actually the grandson of Denny Colt, the Spirit, via an illegitimate child Denny Colt had with Silk Satin. Said child moved to Britain or wherever L's from, got married to one of the few descendants of Sherlock Holmes, and voila. L has arrived.

This may sound far-fetched, and don't get me wrong. It totally is. But at the same time, I'm talking about a comic, and it's something I think would be cool.

Anyway, my evidence for this is mainly L's general modus operandi. He acts a lot like a more circumspect version of Denny Colt--where Denny Colt just hides his identity from the public, L hides his identity from everyone. Both have a close relationship with the police and tend to get put on unusual, high profile cases. L has no sidekicks, but this is because he knows his grandfather's illustrious history, including all the incidents of inopportune betrayal.

It also explains why L can pull reckless tricks like the one with the fake news broadcast and then dare Kira to come get him. He's got just as much of a superiority complex as Light has, but his is backed up by a glorious lineage and a great deal of actual skill. He's the world's best detective and he knows it, and he's descended from another great crime fighter.

Despite this, I doubt Denny Colt would quite approve of L's methods. Even with his own desire for secrecy, he's very much about the trust. L, with his hidden lair and super-concealing ways, is not exactly one to inspire trust, even if he is brilliant. Also, besides the trust issue, L solves crimes, but he isn't active--he doesn't actually go out and collar the crook, he just tells the police how to. I doubt Denny Colt would be able to stand it if all he could do was watch and give directions.

I wonder if Tsugumi Ohba's ever read The Spirit. It'd be awesome if he has.

Shinigami Have Feelings Too

Death Note Volume 1
Tsugumi Ohba

This is the first time I've really read Death Note, after hearing about it for ages and ages. For the most part, I have to say, I'm impressed. It's an interesting story, the art is pretty, and it contains characters who, even if I don't like them, are still fascinating. I'll probably talk about a few of said characters, but the first I'd like to look at is Ryuk, the shinigami.

First off, I think he's really quite cool. I don't know if I trust him, but he's at least interesting. His character design is creepy and original, and I like people who are amused by everything.

Anyway, I'm curious about why he keeps talking to Light. I know he has to hang around until Light dies, and that he's amused by the things Light does. But besides the entertainment value, Light's not a particularly enjoyable guy to be around, especially not acting how he does in private. He's arrogant and manipulative and generally unpleased. Does Ryuk enjoy this sort of thing, or what?

Also, Light has, on at least one occasion, used Ryuk to further his own ends--there may be more, but I've only read volume one. Remember the drug addict on the bus? Light's instructions for the death included the man seeing a "horrifying phantom," which with Light's help ended up being Ryuk. I know Ryuk has a totally different perspective on life than any human, but I'm still curious as to whether that bothered him. He does spend a great deal of time musing on Light's cleverness.

I'd like to read more of this manga. It's weird and interesting, and I want to see how the characters develop, particularly Ryuk.

03 March 2008

An Awesome Thing To Do With Leftover Rice

First off, a warning: this post has nothing to do with comics. Nothing at all. I just got excited and felt like posting it.

Second, another warning: this is a post about food, and cookery, and specifically a sort-of recipe. However, the most dangerous thing it requires you do to is cook bacon, so you're probably safe.

I had rice for breakfast this morning. I was all out of English muffins and other quick-cooking breakfast foods, and I have lots of rice around, and since I've got a rice cooker, if I want rice I can set it up to cook and just ignore it while I'm brushing my teeth. Made about a cup, which provided more than enough food for me--enough that I had a substantial amount of leftovers.

My mother's told me that her favorite thing to do with leftover rice is fry it up, probably with some veggies. It sounds nice, and I was considering it while at my internship thinking about my stomach, but then had another idea and got really excited and tried it out instead. It turned out pretty well. So I wanted to provide the recipe to the world. Although I feel I have to note that it's not really a recipe. It's more of a template. Nothing is an absolute. I don't even have specific measurements. But anyway, without further ado:

Delicious Leftover Rice

You'll need:
steamed rice--I used cold leftovers, of course, but you can make it fresh if you like
a type of cheese you like, preferably hard--I used the Cabot Hunter cheese, which is a super-sharp cheddar cheese that comes in a plaid wrapper
bacon--or another easily cooked and crumbled meat
a microwave-safe bowl

1. Dump out your leftover rice into the bowl; if it comes out in a solid block or cylinder or something, break it up with your fingers.

2. Grate your cheese onto it, as much or as little as you'd like, and mix it in with the rice so that there's a fairly even distribution.

3. Cut three or four slices of bacon in half and fry them up whatever texture you like. Chewy or crispy, it doesn't matter. Actually, you don't even have to cut them in half, but I just found that it made breaking up the pieces easier. When the bacon's done cooking, drain it on a paper towel or something for a minute--excess bacon grease would just make this gross.

4. Break up your cooked bacon into smaller pieces and mix them in with the rice and cheese, again so you've got a fairly even distribution. If you finish mixing and think you need more bacon, make more. It'll be fine to sit for a couple of minutes.

5. Pop the whole thing in the microwave for about a minute and a half. When it's done you should be able to hear the cheese making little bubbly noises. That means it's melted.

6. Eat with a sense of satisfaction and glory in its deliciousness.

It's like having a bowl full of bacon-flavored nachos. It's lovely. And next time I may try pouring in a bit of tomato sauce before I heat it. That's the nice thing; this is highly customizable. You can mix in whatever you like, and it'll use up your leftovers and make you happy.

02 March 2008

Things You Might Enjoy, If You Enjoy This Sort Of Thing--Episode Three

X-Men: Apocalypse vs. Dracula
Written by Frank Tieri
Pencils by Clayton Henry, inks by Mark Morales (with Livesay), colors by Wil Quintana

I borrowed this from my boyfriend about a week ago, but I only got around to reading it today, and it seemed like a good thing to do a review of. It's a good change of pace from my previous all-Gaiman all the time review format, and for once it's something I'm not going to rave about.

That isn't to say I didn't like the book. I did. It was fun, the writing was pretty good, and the art was nice. It's worth reading if you come across it. Nothing special, though.

The basics of the plot may be gleaned from the title. That great X-Men villain, En Sabah Nur, known as Apocalypse, fights Dracula. The story takes place in Victorian England, in 1897. It is told partially from the point of view of Ozymandias, a creepy ancient Egyptian guy in a robe who watches over Apocalypse in his rejuvenation chamber, and partially from the point of view of Jack Starsmore, a member of Clan Akkaba--a clan of descendants of Apocalypse who guard him and do his bidding and spend a lot of time killing each other. Once Apocalypse killed Vlad Tepes. Vlad objected. Now he is busy killing Clan Akkaba members.

So there it is. A non-spoileriffic plot summary. And like I said, it's nothing special. It's got some cool ideas. If anything, I'd say flip through for the art, if you find it. Read a few pages. Nothing glowing and beautiful, but it might be your thing.

Also? Apocalypse. He is scary but sometimes cool.

01 March 2008

Do The Dance Of Squee

So this is not related to any specific comic, but to an opportunity I have encountered recently.

I may, in fact, be able to attend New York City Comic Con. Thus the title of this post, because that is indeed what I am doing--when my legs are not moving, I am doing the dance of squee in my heart.

For those of you who may not know, New York City Comic Con is probably the biggest East Coast comics industry convention--I'm not sure of this, but given that they've got the entire Javits Convention Center I think I can be safe in making the guess. This is where you go to immerse yourself in intense, up-to-date comics industry news, and you can buy comics and see panels and get your trade of Arkham Asylum signed by Grant Morrison (who is the Guest of Honor and I may hug him). And I am sure, because this is a huge industry convention, that there will be swag. Glorious, glorious swag.

Anyway, I am very excited. Almost unbelievably so, but I won't smack the full "unbelievable" stamp on it because I have no way of knowing what you people can and cannot believe.

Also, I mentioned Grant Morrison. Let me take this moment to rave about him.

You folks may have noticed that I talk about Neil Gaiman a lot. I love Neil Gaiman, it's true, but he is not my favorite comics writer. He is my favorite writer all around, any style of writing. If you want me to stick to strictly comics, though, my two favorites, tied, are Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. They both deserve their own posts, but Grant Morrison is on topic, so I will be brief.

The man is a wonderful writer. Read his work, and you can be sunk into the glories of the bizarre. He wrote Arkham Asylum, previously mentioned, my favorite Batman comic of all and possibly one of my favorite comics all around. He also wrote Sebastian O, which is sexy and about Victorian computer assassins and will probably get the next review I post. And he wrote The Invisibles. Now, those other two I mentioned might be weird, but The Invisibles takes the cake. A short description of the genre: it is a mystery-conspiracy-action-romance-psychedelic-brainsplosion. I love it to death. It makes my brain turn inside out.

Grant Morrison is also known for, among other things, his run on Animal Man, now collected into three trade paperbacks, in which he took a C-list-or-lower superhero and made him something amazing and new.

So he's a man worth seeking out and reading. And he's one of my favorite comics writers.

And I might get to go to New York City Comic Con.

Name Game

The Best of the Spirit
Will Eisner

I think one of my favorite things about reading all these old Spirit stories was learning the names of all the characters. They're wonderfully descriptive, for the most part. Then there's the font of awkward that's Ebony White, but we're not going to get into that.

Anyway, like I said, descriptive. Not really of who the person is--we haven't got any tacky Jack-Chick Lew Siffer characters here--but it says a lot about the culture here. For example, from "The Postage Stamp," we've got two lovely ladies, Dulcet Tone and Skinny Bones. Doesn't tell you much about who they are personally, does it? But given the euphemistic names we can tell that they're probably crooks, and it also hints at what life in their criminal underworld might be like for women. Skinny Bones may be a great name, but complimentary it's not.

Actually, I liked women's names in particular. P'Gell is a wonderful example, because it means nothing, but it sounds sort of sexy and exotic. Lorelei Rox (of Odyssey Road) has sort of a wonderful pun for a last name, and I'm a sucker for anyone who knows what a Lorelei is. There's Miss Cosmek, the visitor from Mars. Autumn Mews sounds lovely and dangerous, and Sand Saref is just really cool. It's a font pun! And then there's Silk Satin, whose name is wonderful particularly because it's so girly and she's so tough.

Men mostly get more...well, name-like names. Like Gerhard Shnobble, the man who could fly. Not much of a name. But doesn't it sound hapless to you? Or Carboy T. Gretch and Cranfranz Quayle, the crook and the henpecked husband who switch places accidentally. Great rhythm, and again. Hapless. I appreciate names with real qualities to them. Then there's the main character of "Fox at Bay," Reynard, which is cool because, like Lorelei, it's another reference to a fairy tale--Reynard the fox was a European trickster figure.

But I particularly like Quadrant J. Stet, the accountant. It makes me think of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, like he should be friends with another accountant named...oh...Fiduciary Blurt, or something. I think that's from there. Or maybe I'm just stealing it from Neil Gaiman.

Say what you like about Will Eisner (and I can't really say anyone saying anything bad), he certainly had an appreciable flair for naming. Even Denny Colt paints a picture. It's short and sensible. And probably secretly awesome.

26 February 2008

The Glorious Pulps

Best of the Spirit
Will Eisner

This entry will be brief, because at the moment I'm rather busy writing a paper, but since it's been a week I figured I should check in.

This week in class we are reading Best of the Spirit, a collection of particularly remarkable stories from Will Eisner's rather remarkable comic. Reading them through the first time, I found them enjoyable, if not terribly surprising. Reading them through again, I found them interesting and well-written. And of course I have a weakness for this sort of thing.

I will make a confession. I love me some pulp fiction.

Now, my pulp fiction interests mainly run to sci-fi, but I like The Spirit because of my deep and abiding love of crime fiction a la Raymond Chandler and film noir. The Spirit and the police are nearly as cynical as Philip Marlowe, but they seem cheerier about it; that they take it for granted that eighteen-year-olds might take to crime is sad, but they run with it. Nothing they can do about it, hey?

I think I'd like to read some more of the Raymond Chandler novels lying around my house and compare them to the Spirit. It'd be fun. But for now I've got a paper to write.

13 February 2008

Things You Might Enjoy, If You Enjoy This Sort Of Thing--Episode Two

The Last Temptation
Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli
based on a story by Neil Gaiman and Alice Cooper

I found this a couple of days ago, at the same store where I found, to my sorrow, the Essential Dazzler. And, appropriately enough to the story's content, I didn't find it in the main room of the comic shop. No, I found it in the basement, in a mildly creepy little room filled with boxes of back issues and ancient model kits and a lit glass case full of outdated collectibles. According to Amazon it's still in print, but on the "Other Books by Neil Gaiman" list in the back of my copy, it mentions American Gods as "coming Summer 2001." It cost me ten dollars plus tax, and possibly a little bit of my soul, though I can't really judge that at the moment.

Anyway, I bought it, and then later when my boyfriend and I were driving to GameStop, he said to me, "So, you bought an Alice Cooper comic?" Not really with derision--we both know that Neil Gaiman's a great author regardless, and Alice Cooper is actually pretty cool--but with curiousity. Because of course there's this lovely tradition of rocker vanity projects, like...well, for example, any comic starring the members of Kiss. So I was mildly apprehensive, but not too much.

And it's a great story.

I mean, it's not the best I've read. Certainly not the best work of Neil Gaiman's that I've read; it's a bit too straightforward for that. But it's a really cool comic to have. It's about a boy named Steven, who's scared of lots of things, and who meets a Showman who runs a theatre and looks a lot like Alice Cooper. The Showman gives him a free ticket to the theatre, and shows him some rather terrifying things, and then makes him an enticing offer, one that could change his life.

Join up. Be part of the show. Be young forever. Everyone wants that. Right?

I will not provide details.

It's beautifully written, and I imagine it's a great companion to the album, which I haven't heard, although now I'd really like to. Steven's a likable kid. And besides the writing, it's also beautifully drawn--by Michael Zulli, in fact, one of my favorite comics artists because he makes everything beautiful, even zombies. Everything's lovely, and a few panels in particular were really weirdly compelling. My copy, at least, has this odd brownish tint instead of straight black and white, which is interesting, but I don't know whether it's deliberate or a consequence of aging slowly in a dark basement. And the lettering is by Todd Klein, who did a lot of the lettering on Sandman, so even that's cool.

The Last Temptation is a comic worth finding, particularly if you can find it in some weird place like I did. I'm not saying you should hunt it down with a crazy passion, but if you come across it, pick it up and read at least a few pages. Drop the ten bucks for a copy; it's worth at least that much. It's not a complicated story. It probably won't shock you that much. But it is really good.

What Is The Point Of Dazzler?

The Dark Phoenix Saga
Chris Claremont

Possible spoilers

One thing I enjoyed about reading Dark Phoenix was the chance to see the origins of two of my favorite X-Men characters. These are Kitty Pryde and Emma Frost--Kitty I like because I feel like I can relate to her, just a bit. Emma's cool because...well, she's intelligent, sarcastic, and generally in control of herself, she's a psychic, and she's super hot.

Emma particularly has been a constant in most of the X-Men comics I've read. She's a central character in Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men, which is the first X-Men series I ever read. She's similarly important in Grant Morrison's run on New X-Men, which I read after Astonishing even though it came first. And now I get to see her way early on.

Kitty, too--not so much in New X-Men, but she's a member of the main team in Astonishing, and she's smart and interesting and has a really cool power. Whedon even references the events of her introduction in Dark Phoenix. She's neat. There's a point to her.

However, Emma and Kitty aren't the only characters introduced in Dark Phoenix Saga. There's also Dazzler. She's a disco queen.

Why, oh gods, why is there a disco queen?

If you haven't heard of her before, or read Dark Phoenix Saga, you may not know of her. She's an aspiring singer trying to break into the disco scene. She wears a skintight silver jumpsuit and high heels made of disco. Her power is to create lots of bright lights very suddenly. She mainly uses it in her act, but she can also give people seizures or make them go blind.

Seizures. Disco. What the hell, people.

See, it's similar to part of my problem with Jean Grey. I think it would be possible to do interesting things with a power like that, but mainly as she's written she's just irritating. And the other day, when I found a copy of (le sigh) the Essential Dazzler, I was told by my boyfriend that her solo comic mainly just followed her attempts to start up a singing career. But, apparently, she has also done some superheroing, also solo.

Now, my problem with that is, how do you make a power like hers useful in a superhero context without backup? Bright lights can be useful, but they're not exactly subtle; it'd make infiltrating easy, and even with seizures and blindness and everything, it's not a terribly helpful combat power. From what I've seen in Dark Phoenix, she's not very good at hand-to-hand fighting, either.

So what is the point of her? Hearing about someone's futile grabs at a singing career is dull. She's not a good solo fighter. She has awful taste in clothing, so she's not even fun to look at.

Also, she's a disco queen. Some references to current popular culture I expect in any comic set in modern times. But the whole "disco queen" thing just dates it. I know, I know, nothing ages worse than science fiction, but that doesn't prevent my mind from imploding.

Who knows? Someone out there might be a big Dazzler fan, and I won't judge you if you are. But I just can't see the point.

10 February 2008

Jean Grey Syndrome

The Dark Phoenix Saga
Chris Claremont

Spoilers ahead, maybe

I am no fan of Jean Grey.

I mean, it's a character with potential, I suppose. Jean Grey and Phoenix both. A telekine and weak telepath, with vast reserves of power which, when tapped, slowly take her over. There are things you can do with that. Cool things. Megalomania is an entertaining plot device when handled properly.

However, over the years, the writers who have taken on the story of Jean Grey and Phoenix have gone far past proper handling and into the realm of death, shark-jumping and general headachey terror. The original Dark Phoenix Saga is a fantastic story with a lot of impact. It's a story about someone learning self-control, and ultimately also about a superhero committing suicide. And that's intense, and the sort of thing that people sometimes have difficulty dealing with.

But really. I wish she'd stayed dead.

...I know. Comic Book Death. Nobody stays dead except Barry Allen, and even that might be in doubt. But there's a difference between dying and coming back once, and dying and coming back every few years. Like I said, it's a character with potential. It's a compelling idea. But it's overdone. Hey, Grant Morrison did some cool Dark Phoenix stuff in New X-Men, which I love like crazy, and I still found it tiring.

Also, I don't like characters whose primary purpose seems to be rescuing writers who have written themselves into corners. Wolverine's dead? Whoo! Phoenix saves the day! World ending as you ride a meteor into the sun? Phoenix! Sublime is destroying all of civilization in a horrifying alternate future? Phoenix!

Godsdamn, people. Phoenix is not the answer to all your problems. In fact, at this point, she's not really the answer to any of them.

Please stop. For the Professor's sake.

07 February 2008

Gutter Brain

Understanding Comics
Scott McCloud

So I rather enjoyed reading Understand Comics, once I got past the smirking face and the cluttered pages. There were a lot of interesting ideas in it--particularly the idea of action taking place in the gutter between panels. I didn't find the concept terribly surprising, but it was cool to think about, and to see demonstrated.

That makes me curious about something. How far can one go with this implied action? Which is not to say that the gutters should be huge, but how far can you go between moments? I'd like to see a comic that lets minutes pass between panels, preferably without dialogue. I'm sure this has been done before, but I'd like to see it anyway.

I suppose there are other ways to do it too. A story where all the crucial events take place off-panel, maybe. Which would be really interesting, from a story-telling perspective. It'd be a useful exercise in perspective. Maybe the story's being told by that one person who always shows up just too late to see whatever interesting thing just happened. Although I don't think a plot device would be necessary. I'd just like to see a comic that's always aftermath and never event. It'd be different.

Or maybe a comedy thing. Characters that, strictly, only exist within panels, and cease to exist between them, thus creating memory gaps. It'd be fun to construct the story, and terribly confusing for the characters, which I always enjoy. Fucking with my own characters is sort of my hobby. Sort of a way to vent my secret foul temper while maintaining my outwardly sunny peace-and-love demeanor.

...I seem to be wearing this topic a little thin. It's a cool idea, but my brain is shorting out. I'll post more later, probably on another aspect of McCloud.

06 February 2008

What Got Me Into This In The First Place

This week in class one of the things we're discussing is Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud. And I've got some stuff I want to say about it, but I think that can wait a little bit, or at least until tomorrow. For now, here's something else.

So I've already put up one big long post about why I like comics, but I never really got into how it came up in the first place. I'm sure that if anyone's reading this who's not actually in the class, there are still a few skeptics out there, and I'm sure you're saying to yourselves, "How in the world could this girl--from all appearances reasonably intelligent and possessed of a sharp wit--get interested in something as childish as comic books?"

Well, here's how it goes. This is my comics-reading timeline.

When I was little, I read lots of Calvin & Hobbes, with occasionally wordless flips-through in...um, I think they were Howard the Duck singles, actually. Not really sure. So that got me interested in comics in a general way, because they were fun. Mostly newspaper strips. Then there was Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, a book belonging to my parents. It's a collection of Winsor McCay strips about people having freaky dreams which they then blame on having eaten too much before bed. It was both interesting and, if you'll excuse the phrasing, fucking terrifying. I was seven! (Or maybe eight.) I was not prepared for that shit! So that sort of put me off non-newspaper-strip comics for a while.

Then for a while there was my whole terrifyingly huge manga obsession, which we will skip over in the interests of everyone's time and sanity. I think Japanese comics are very important, but they're also a whole different ballpark, with their own set of symbols and archetypes and cultural assumptions. Although I do still maintain that Petshop of Horrors may be one of the most awesome series on the planet. When I was big into manga, I didn't like American comics at all. I thought they were childish and had bad art. And they're all really basic superhero-saves-the-day stories, right? What besides Batman is cool about that?

The thing that got me off my manga-only kick and back into reading comics in general was Preludes and Nocturnes, the first volume of Neil Gaiman's comic Sandman. I was a fan of Neil Gaiman, which is why I was interested at all, and had already read Sandman: The Dream Hunters, which is cool, but not a comic--it's an illustrated novella.

I read Preludes and Nocturnes and it was really well-written, and strange, and intense and scary and involving in a way I hadn't encountered before. People who have read it may be able to guess why; "24 Hours" in particular is an extraordinary use of the comics form, and particularly an extraordinary use of the standard 24-page single-issue size. It took what would have been a creepy story anyway and made it into something terrifying and riveting, with a forced pace that made my chest hurt, I was so tense. So, bang, pow, and there it is: Miss Becca loves comics, because her favorite author wrote one that made her head explode, and now she wants to see if other people can do the same thing.

Then, of course, there was Watchmen. My dad got me a copy of Watchmen--actually, the same one I've got here at school with me now to use as one of my textbooks. And that also did things to my brain. But it deserves its own post. Several, actually. Which won't be until the end of the semester.

03 February 2008

Things You Might Enjoy, If You Enjoy This Sort Of Thing--Episode One

Think of this entry as the first in a continuing series. "Things You Might Enjoy, If You Enjoy The Sort Of Thing" is where I take the chance to review comics that aren't on my class syllabus. They may not be new, or obscure, or anything like that--they're just comics that I like, that I think are good, and that I think people should read.

So, without further ado:

Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days
Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days is a book Vertigo put out a few years ago, a collection of miniseries and one-shots and other things Neil Gaiman wrote for them that hadn't been collected previously. It's called Midnight Days because, according to Neil Gaiman in the introduction, most of the scripts for these stories were written after midnight, "when the world was quiet and there was no-one left to talk to." So you might be able to guess that they're fairly weird.

I promise I won't spoil anything. I won't say anything that isn't in some way already mentioned in the introductions to the stories.

The first three are Swamp Thing stories. The very first one is the second comics script Neil Gaiman ever wrote, illustrated by Steve Bissette and John Totleben specifically for the collection. There's a Swamp Thing Annual, which doesn't really have much Swamp Thing in it at all, but does have Brother Power the Geek, possibly one of the weirdest characters to ever grace a comics page. And then there's "Shaggy God Stories," which is a story about Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man. That one, besides being written by Neil Gaiman, was illustrated by Mike Mignola, though one wouldn't necessarily guess it. This is pre-chunky-awesome-Hellboy-type art, I guess.

After the Swamp Thing stories, there's one about John Constantine. It's called "Hold Me," and it's illustrated by Dave McKean, and Neil Gaiman says it's one of his favorites of his own short stories. It's beautiful. And it hurts to read, a little bit. It's mostly about loneliness.

Finishing up the book is the unnaturally awesome Sandman Mystery Theatre, which has the distinction of being written by Neil Gaiman, but plotted out by Matt Wagner, the amazing man who does Grendel and Mage. For the most part, Sandman Mystery Theatre stories are about Wesley Dodds, the original DC Sandman, this badass crime fighter in the 1930s and 40s who wore a gas mask and sprinkled sand on the people he caught.

This story, however, is about both Wesley Dodds and Morpheus, the main character in Neil Gaiman's equally awesome Sandman series, which you've probably heard of if you read comics at all. So it's by two writers who are really good, about two characters who are really interesting. Also, the whole story was painted by an artist named Teddy Kristiansen, who does beautiful work. It's like a combination of Dave McKean, art nouveau, and pure sexy detective-story joy.

Given my love of Neil Gaiman, it's no surprise that I like this collection, but don't think that makes it any less good. It's a wonderful group of stories. They're sad and funny and occasionally creepy as hell, and the writing is beautiful, and they're all accompanied by lovely pictures. The collection's also about eighteen bucks new, which isn't exorbitantly expensive, and it's certainly worth it for something this awesome.

So go. Read. Share and enjoy.

Liking Superheroes Is Nothing To Be Ashamed Of

Essex County Volume 1: Tales from the Farm
Jeff Lemire

Possible spoilers

Something I mentioned in my last post that I think warrants further discussion is Lester's comic, the one originally drawn and written by Jeff Lemire at the age of nine. Mainly I think it's worth looking at because it's good evidence of where he started from, comics-wise.

First off, the art. Even here he doesn't use a lot of shading. Not that nine-year-olds often do, but his art now is still very much like this--more competent, more abstract, but primarily just line art, with all shadows in one shade of black. The people aren't that bad either; this child is in need of an anatomy book, but given the shapes of the muscles and the poses in which they stand, at least he's been observing and absorbing the world around him. Can't say much for consistency, but it's no worse than, say, a low-budget cartoon from the Seventies. Inconsistent enough to be noticeable, but not enough to really make someone wince.

The writing is...well, it's a kid-written superhero comic. It's not terribly complex. Villain escapes from jail, superhero fights him, villain is sent back to jail. But I always like to see a kid writing something.

Mainly it just makes me sad that this is the only real example of a superhero comic that comes up in a story about a child obsessed with superheroes. Combined with Lester's abandonment of his mask and cape at the end of the story, it serves to imply that superhero stories are only for children, and that once you grow up you can't really think they're cool anymore. I mean, Jeff Lemire obviously started off liking superheroes, given that he drew that minicomic too, but in his interview this week on the podcast Indie Spinner Rack, he seemed almost ashamed to admit that he still does.

And that's sad. Superheroes are really pretty awesome, and can themselves be vehicles for wonderful, serious stories--witness The Dark Knight Returns, for example, or anything by Alan Moore with superheroes in it (like Supreme: The Story of the Year or the Top 10 books).

Caped crusaders and men of mystery are not just for children. I mean, I may act childish sometimes, but most of the really enjoyable serious literature discussions I've had with people were about comics. Superhero comics. Just as I've had other cool analytical discussions with friends about, say, books I read for the first time when I was eight.

Just because it gets marketed to kids doesn't mean it's for them.

01 February 2008

The Joys of Black and White

Essex County Volume 1: Tales from the Farm
Jeff Lemire

So I didn't necessarily like the story. I'm willing to reconsider, but that's where I stand for now. I did, however, like the art.

I love art that's highly detailed and richly colored, like anything by Michael Zulli--volume ten of Sandman is good for that. I like crazy Dave McKean-style collage-painting-cutup art like in Arkham Asylum, and I like things that are really cartoony. But sometimes I also just like straight black-and-white line art.

What I think is particularly interesting about Jeff Lemire's art is the intense high contrast he's got going. There are no in-between colours, just black and white. Things are shaded, but the shading doesn't vary. The only time we ever see gray is in flashbacks, which basically just substitute gray for black, and it's still always the same kind of gray. And then there's Lester's comic, which Jeff Lemire actually drew when he was nine. It's awkward, but still fairly confident for a nine-year-old. And it's so cute, too.

I also like the way he draws faces. They're very expressive, in a way that's interesting, because for the most part they don't actually move a lot. Jimmy, with his huge brick of a nose, is particularly fun to look at, because given that he used to be a hockey player, we know how it got that spread out. He's probably gotten it broken a lot. Kenny's face is also interesting, mainly because it has more lines than any other face in the comic book. He has super-lines.

Lester isn't actually much to look at without his little mask and cape. He's a fairly ordinary looking kid. Nose is a little pointier than normal, though. Jeff Lemire does a lot with noses.

Mainly I just really like the first three pages--not counting the "Summer" section page. They're very spare; the sky doesn't even have clouds. And I'm always a sucker for flight. It's also the only time when we really get to see all the buildings on the main farm compound, which I just like from a setting standpoint.

I don't know whether I'd necessarily read Essex County Volume 2. But I'd certainly like to see what it looks like.

29 January 2008

Things Like This Are Why I Hate Realism

Spoilers. Maybe.

Essex County Volume 1: Tales from the Farm
Jeff Lemire

So first off, let me say that I think this was a very good comic. It was beautifully written, well-plotted, and very moving. I loved the art style, which was very minimalist and intense, and I always like black and white. And I also like Canada.

However, I can't say that I actually liked the comic. When I finished reading it for the first time, I wanted to curl into a little ball of misery. It was beautiful, like I said, and I appreciate beauty, but beauty doesn't equal love, and I can't love something so unrelentingly bleak. I read it a couple of times, yes, and if asked to describe it, the first word I'd probably use is "realistic." And by realistic, I mean from the life-is-misery school of realism. There were a few happy moments--for example, the scene in which Lester shows Jimmy the comic he drew--but for the most part it was unrelentingly depressing.

This isn't a problem I have just with this book. It's a problem I have with "realistic" fiction in general. I don't see why stories of any sort, to be both realistic and a serious work of literature, must by necessity be intensely depressing.

I don't, of course, demand that everything realistic be funny, because that wouldn't itself be realistic. That'd be comedy. But I would like to see people acknowledge that life can actually be something other than gray drudgery, alienation, and death. Sometimes things end happily. Sometimes the good guys win and the nice guy gets the hot girl. Or hot guy, as the case may be. Closest thing to realistic I've read recently that actually made me smile was American Born Chinese, and that has the goddamn Monkey King in it. American Born Chinese got sad and painful, but then in the end things turned out all right--and this is what so many realistic authors I've read don't seem to realize.

...I suppose that besides the general depressingness of it, the other reason I didn't like Tales from the Farm was because, in the end, it strikes me as a story about the death of imagination. It could be some sort of Tempest allegory, some weird little-Canadian-boy version of a wizard who breaks his staff and throws away his books. But mainly it seems to me like a story about a boy who has a fantasy that he loves, and which may in fact be reality, and who has to give it up in the face of life sucking.

And that...that just makes me sad.

27 January 2008

Tales from the Farm #1: The Reality Issue

Spoiler alert, should you be worried about that sort of thing.

Essex County Volume 1: Tales from the Farm
Jeff Lemire

So the nature of reality in Tales from the Farm has me a little bit worried. I mean, on the one hand, it's mildly weird even from the beginning. The opening has Lester flying over his uncle's flat, boring generic-crop field, but then it doesn't come up again until the very end. He does mention his alleged superhero activities, at least to Jimmy: "I'm a superhero. There's an alien invasion coming. Just scouts so far. I gotta kill 'em before they can report back to the main fleet."

And Jimmy just goes with it. But of course you don't see the actual fighting of aliens, so it's easy to assume that it's just a game, like it's easy to guess, what with the relentless realism of the rest of the comic, that the flying at the beginning was just a little boy daydreaming. It's easy to think that they're playing until the end, when aliens do actually show up and Lester flies, and Jimmy dies.

It'd be cake to assume that this was imagination, too, except for the part where Jimmy actually does die. It's not the sort of thing a kid as lonely as Lester is likely to make up, and when he gives up his mask and cape it's certainly very final. In which case he is a superhero, and that, at least to me, makes the whole comic different, because that means maybe Jimmy was a superhero too.

His mother may have been a super-sort, but Jimmy seems like the more likely candidate for heroic parentage. That would explain why he's so calm about being killed by aliens. It also brings up the question of whether his head injury forced him out of a heroing career and not just the NHL. It would certainly explain some of his intense bitterness about everything--losing a lucrative career in the NHL is bad by itself, but losing one's saving-people vocation at the same time is even worse. He doesn't seem to be as simple as Kenny claims he is; he's certainly still strong enough, and at least somewhat smarter than the popular perception.

Perhaps he was forced out of the depressing-semi-real-world equivalent of the Justice League because of his head injury. Maybe that's why he's so angry.